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SPS-222: Lockdown: Coping Strategies for your Indie Author Business



James and Mark discuss strategies authors can use to cope with the current global health crisis, including important mindset reminders and some insider tips about advertising.

Show Notes

  • On SPFs upcoming service for authors to widen their audiences, HelloBooks
  • Setting priorities that are suitable for yourself during the C-19 crisis
  • The importance of not comparing yourself to others
  • Taking wins where you can find them
  • On the opportunities that might be available during this strange time
  • Ideas for connecting with your audience and offering them entertainment in the form of reading

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

SPFU: For a limited time, while the world is #socialdistancing, we are offering FREE access to SPF University* (*not a university). Click here for lifetime access.

DIGITAL EVENT: Were you not able to attend SPS Live? Get your digital ticket here.

MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

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

Mark Dawson: I’m absolutely sure that there will be authors in this situation now who will write fantastic novels that may never have got written were it not for the fact that they were able to find a little bit of time in all this craziness to start thinking about that thing they’d always wanted to do.

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 and welcome to the Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.

James Blatch: Nice sartorial touch to your headwear, Mark.

Mark Dawson: Yes. I’m wearing hats at the moment because I haven’t been to the hairdressers for about five weeks. So it’s basically a question of wear hats or shave all my hair off, and I’m leaning towards the latter.

James Blatch: The isolation head shave is quite a thing though, isn’t it? Quite a lot of people are doing it.

Mark Dawson: And beard. Yeah.

James Blatch: Beard. Yes. I’m shaving about once a week at the moment.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. I’m starting to get into my Santa Claus mode.

James Blatch: Yes. So, you need to watch on YouTube if you want to see Dawson’s headwear in all its glory. It’s a sort of throwback to the 90s DJ era I would say.

Mark Dawson: If you say so, James. I think that the day I take 90s DJ era clothes recommendations or observations from you will be a cold day in hell.

James Blatch: You don’t know what you’re missing.

We have lots to talk about in this episode. We are actually not going to have an interview. We are going to talk about the current situation that the world finds itself in, at how we adjust our lives, how we adjust our business, particularly the online environment, which we’re going to talk about.

And we’ve got a bit of information direct from Facebook actually today which we can share with you. And Mark is going to talk about his experience but also just things that you need to think about.

Before we do that, we have some announcements. First of all, I want to welcome a couple of Patreon supporters, people who’ve been to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow to support this here show. And they are Nicole Burnham and Rosalie Cross, so thank you very much indeed Nicole and Rosalie for joining us.

I should say that one of the benefits that you get from being a Patreon supporter is membership of the Self-Publishing Formula university, which is a series of live lectures on issues that are useful for marketing, generally for marketing, for authors.

However, because of this COVID period, people maybe have a little bit less money to share at the moment, and also spending a lot of time at home. We have made membership of that university free of charge for this period. Now it’ll be yours for life if you get in now.

So if you go to selfpublishingformula.com/spfufree, all one word, ‘spfufree,’ you can sign up. We have, at the time of speaking, our next one is lined up for I think a week, that’d be next Wednesday after this goes out. This is going out on Friday, so the following Wednesday.

And that will be how to create an impressive 3D image of your box set from your book covers. That will be with our friends at BookBrush. That will be a good practical session for you to watch, re-watch, and copy.

A couple of other announcements, Mark. We have a new course, which has just come into fruition, and we are now going to move into the launch phase of this course. It is on how to write a bestseller. I should explain what this course is because that’s quite a big subject area.

It’s been written in conjunction with Suzy K. Quinn who is, of course, a bestselling author herself. And, what Suzy does in this course, and I’m not sure I’ve totted it up yet, but it’s eight or nine hours. I think it’s a decent, good length course.

This is about completely understanding the difference between a book that sits on the shelf and gathers dust and the books that you see people reading on the subway or the tube. It’s those key ingredients that make people want to turn the pages. No accident of this, of course you can analyze those common factors that exist in genre fiction books.

This course is not for you if you’ve got that one novel in you that you’re yearning to tell your personal story and it doesn’t really matter about sales. This is for you if you want to write for a living, if you want to entertain people with stories, whether that’s science fiction or romance or thrillers, whatever the genre.

It would be a genre fiction type book although Suzy does talk about literary fiction and others in there. Talks about mistakes people made and how to correct it, how to understand those ingredients, and then how to create a blueprint for you. Almost tick boxes in a way which makes it… sort of dumb down the process but it’s not dumbed down. Of course, like all these things, it’s actually quite hard work to get there but to understand this process will put you in a very, very good position for creating this book what has an opportunity to be a bestseller.

I think it’s a fabulous course. I’ve really enjoyed editing it. I found myself watching it and absorbing it as I’m going along. I think Suzy’s done a great job.

We’re going to get her to, as part of sort the marketing that goes around the course, we’ll get as much free stuff out of her as we can, so webinars and so on, and we’ll get her on the podcast very soon as well.

As I’m sitting here now, it’s likely, I think, by the time this podcast goes out that the course will be up and available, but if it’s not there’ll be a wait list. But this will be the URL to go to, which is selfpublishingformula.com/bestseller. We will do the same as we did with our cover design course, the excellent cover design course by Stuart Bache, is that for the first few weeks there’ll be a big discount because we want people to get on board, we want people to spread the word, to enjoy the course, to start using it and tell everyone how what a wonderful course is this.

Good marketing technique of course. And at some point it’ll be more expensive. So, roughly $100 off, I think, for the first few weeks. Which is going to price the course, and we haven’t made a definite decision yet but I would think within the two to 300 dollar mark, so it’s going to be around that point. And we’ll nail that down the next week or so.

But if you are an early bird you will get that discount. We’ll also make sure, particularly at this time of COVID, that there’s a 12-month payment plan so to make that really low monthly payment for you to make it as accessible as possible.

Mark, who do you think this is going to really work for, this course?

Mark Dawson: Well, the other way to look at it is this is kind of ‘write to market.’ Chris Fox has written a few books about this. And it’s ideally showing you how to prepare before you actually start to write something.

There’s nothing wrong with kind of writing your passion, as you say, that’s completely fine. What we’re trying to do with this is to give you some clues as to how you might be able to marry up what you would enjoy writing with what you think the audience, the readers, might be looking to buy. So, the intention is that you’re maximizing your chance of writing something commercial rather than something that is a passion project, for example.

That’s who it’s for. And it’s for anyone. I suppose it’s really for any kind of writer. It’s something that I’ll certainly be looking at. I did this exercise unconsciously without books or courses when I started writing The Milton Series five or six years ago. Just having to luck into something that I enjoyed writing and that the audience had an appetite for.

So, what we’re trying to do with this is to short-circuit that process or to take the luck and the guess work out of it. So, really for anyone who’s looking to make an impact as a commercial fiction writer. That’s the kind of target for this.

James Blatch: It’s very interesting, in the beginning of this process when I talked to Suzy about the fundamentals of this course and what she wanted to teach. And she explained how the industry, traditionally, has worked basically backwards or to the point where they don’t really put any value in the time authors put into writing so that the industry’s always had this massive oversupply of writers wanting to be published.

And so they don’t really care how long people write for, what they write. They can look at the 100,000 submissions and pick out the one that happens to match what they want to do, what the market’s thinking at that time, what they think they can sell. And they don’t care about anyone else. So it is not to say they ruthlessly don’t care, they just accept that people like writing and will write.

Whereas wouldn’t it be better, as a writing point of view, for you to understand what it is they want before you start writing? To understand what sort of cover it’s going to wear, what the tagline’s going to be. And Suzy talks about putting together this package, which might feel like I want way, way too early to start thinking of what the cover’s going to look like. Suzy says, “No, no. Other way around.

Start with the cover here, start with the… it’s not quite like this but start with the tagline. Start with what this book’s going to look and feel like on the shelf, then write to it.”

Mark Dawson: Yeah. That’s pretty sensible. And also if you think about if you’re launching a new car, if Ford is going to have a new car coming out, they’re not going to build the car and then see whether people want it. They would’ve spent millions of dollars on consumer research and prototypes and things like that, before they actually get to the stage where they go, “Actually, yeah. We’re ready to make that car and sell it now.”

So, it’s just basically minimizing the chances that you’ll end up writing something that no one wants to read. You have an eye on the market as you’re writing, which is what most industries do. I think it’s a sensible way to look at things.

James Blatch: Anyway, we will set up sooner rather than later a webinar with Suzy. So you get an opportunity to hear her for an hour talking about all of this stuff, and then you can make a really good decision about whether the course is for you or not. But if you’re an early bird, you get that big discount, selfpublishingformula.com/bestseller, all one word.

That’s one announcement. And the other announcement is we’ve been thinking about something that we can do to help people at this time. We’ve got a big list of authors all trying to market their books.

This has been an idea, it’s been around for a little while with us, Mark, but we’re definitely pushing ahead with it now. To facilitate the option to get your books in front of a large number of readers.

Mark Dawson: It is, yes. So, we have been thinking about it a long time. This originally was going to be called Book Locker. So we actually built a little prototype website for this three, two years ago now, and then decided that we didn’t want to do it, the time wasn’t right. We were too busy so we put that aside.

But as people are sitting at home looking for things to read, this is a perfect time, and we’ll talk about this later as we get into the virus stuff, but it’s a perfect time for writers to get their books in front of hungry readers. And so we’ve been thinking that is there a way that we can accelerate that process.

I started thinking about ways that we could do that. And I’ve been looking at the example set by BookBub, by Freebooksy, by the other email-based marketing companies. Also by, with some… J. A. Konrath did a little kind of thriller promotion six months ago. Including a pretty neat little hack that enables readers to add multiple books that they see on a website straight to their Amazon cart.

With one click it goes straight to the cart, and then another click they download them. So, if you have 10 books in a promotion, they can all be added to a reader’s Kindle, and then they all get a download. So, you’re seeing books shoot up the charts with this technique.

We figured out how to do that. It wasn’t all that difficult. We did a little bit of digging and we replicated that. And so we’re thinking now about putting together something similar to BookBub, obviously at a much smaller scale. BookBub didn’t get to be the market leader without a lot of effort and a lot of finance. But they had to start somewhere.

So we’re going to do something similar. Starting with free books, we think. And we’ve had Stuart Grant built us a prototype website that demonstrated what we were thinking. We’ve then gone to a company that we used to build the SPF website, so we’ve got them building a website for us.

James, and very spontaneously, last week decided after… We were thinking about a name for the site, and we couldn’t really think of anything really good. Then James said, “What about Hello Books?” And I thought immediately, “Yeah. That’s great. It’s perfect.” And it said it’s available for $8,000. The next thing I know he’s gone and bought it.

James Blatch: It’s an investment.

Mark Dawson: It’s an investment, yeah. So we now own the URL for hellobooks.com. And we think that will be the name, well it will be the name because we spent $8,000 on it.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: So, that’s going to be the name of the site. And we’re in the process now of, we’ve got a designer working on the design, our usual designer, Sarah, is working on the designs for logos and fonts and colors. We’ve got the web designers are now building the website.

Stuart Grant will be involved, I think my brother Craig will be involved, together with the rest of the SPF team. And, I don’t know, I think we’re probably hoping to have it launch within a month, I would say.

That’s perhaps a bit ambitious, but within that kind of timeframe is what we’re looking at.

James Blatch: So, from a reader point of view, they offer up their book, they set a period of time they commit to making it free on Amazon.

Mark Dawson: From a writer point of view.

James Blatch: Sorry, from a writer point of view, I should say, yes. Free for a period time. They then get the link to the page that we put together with maybe nine other authors’ books, something like that, in the same genre. They can share, if all 10 authors share that link to their audience, which obviously is a huge audience of like-minded readers, hopefully when you times that list size by 10.

The link is brilliant, because as you say, it’s a magic link, you click it once and it puts all 10 books into your basket, all marked at ‘free’, onto Amazon which is rather lovely.

In addition to that, and I have to be a little bit careful having already committed us to spend $8,000 odd dollars straight away, I think it’ll be sensible for us to push some money through Facebook Ads as well.

Certainly for the first year when we want people to get absolute maximum value for money out of… we haven’t said how much we would charge for this, we’re thinking something like $25. Make it as accessible as possible to a wide audience.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, it’ll be cheap. Certainly in the early days it’ll be really cheap, so we’ll see. It may even be less than that. The intention is that this is very, very cost-effective way to reach readers with your stuff, especially in the next six months or so.

James Blatch: Initially, I should say the very first idea you had is that we could charge this money for authors each week, and we’d give all the profits to the COVID-19 type support groups. This has blossomed into something that’s going to, I think for a chunk of time, be an investment for us. We’ll be putting money into it and building it. Which is absolutely fine and I’m very in favor of that from a business point of view.

Just as a slight aside, Craig Martelle has been running a fund for authors who are running into trouble at the moment, whose jobs have dropped away, and helping them out. And we are donating our money to that. So that’s what we’re doing during the COVID period, I think I’ve given him a cheque for $1,500 so far and we’ll do another check soon to make sure that fund doesn’t run dry.

But if you go to the 20BooksTo50K website as well as Facebook group, you will find mention of that fund. So, yeah that’s how this started but I think it’s going to be like an investment for us so there won’t be a lot of profit to give away initially.

I’m quite excited, hellobooks.com as well I think is going to be hopefully a catchy name that will start to become mentioned.

Mark Dawson: It’s good.

James Blatch: Good. So, this sort of does link in to what we’re going to talk about today, Mark, is that I think-

Mark Dawson: Actually before you segue into that.

James Blatch: Go on.

Mark Dawson: Speaking of charity and donations and things, you also need to mention that we’ve for the last two or three years now, us with Reedsy, we’ve been sponsoring four authors in the SPF Foundation. So, they get $2,500 each and both of our courses. So as we go one we’ll probably give them all of our courses, so they’ll get more courses from us as we continue to roll out new content. And we’ve had some big success, we’ve had Elle Thorpe, was it? Who was on the podcast?

James Blatch: Yes. In Sydney, yep.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, doing really well. So, we’ve had a few authors who were struggling. They didn’t have the money to take the courses, they didn’t have money to advertise or get edits or covers. So we’ve been helping, I don’t know, I think eight or 12 authors out over the last two or three years. We can announce there’s going to be more coming from that.

Lucy Score who is a very successful romance author who initially found her success with the ads course, she is now going to be sponsoring one romance author a year to the tune of $2,500. We’ve also got another, Marc Reklau is sponsoring non-fiction, again, $2,500 a year from Marc.

And we’ve got two more authors, I’m not going to name them yet because it hasn’t been completely confirmed yet but they’ve indicated they want to get involved as well. So, we could have up to eight scholarships this year, each of them getting two and a half grand, plus all of our courses. So, we are quite excited about that. So, more details on that as we get them.

And if you want to apply, Lucy, my wife, is in charge of the foundation. You go to the Self Publishing Formula website, there is a tab up at the top right that says ‘foundation,’ if you click there you’ll get all the information that you need. And if you want to apply, you can do that there too.

James Blatch: Yeah. I should say that we put in, I think is it three or four that we’ve sponsored directly ourselves so we have put that up and that’s how that started. It’s fantastic to be contacted by authors. Marc and Lucy, both great people in their own right. Great writers, very successful and putting their hands up and contacting us and saying, “We want to help some other people with… on the basis of our success.” That’s fantastic. So, thank you very much indeed to you guys.

Okay. So, the segue I was going to come up with, and I think it’s just linked, is that we’ve gone into this rather strange period, a sudden leap into this-

Mark Dawson: Rather strange.

James Blatch: Rather strange. This pandemic. But more than that, from a financial point of view, we’re all very aware, welcoming these huge handouts that all our governments are giving. I mean, Europe every country is talking about hundreds of billions of pounds, euros, that have been made available to people.

And we’re all aware that there’s a cost to that, at some point someone has to pay. And around the corner is a recession, there’s no question about that. Around the corner we have a recession. We’ve been plunged into almost a freeze of the economies at the moment.

Mark Dawson: If we’re lucky.

James Blatch: If we’re lucky. And not a depression, even worse than that. In fact, I think I saw figures. So, a recession in the UK is, I think globally actually, a 0.5% decline in a quarter means recession.

Mark Dawson: Two consecutive quarters.

James Blatch: Two consecutive… Typically, recessions are 1.5, 2 is a bad one, and I think I read the forecast for this quarter is 14 points down, we’ll be 14% down, so that’s unheard of outside of wartime.

But because of that, maybe, I think all of us have had a little fillip. We’ve really focused our minds on our business and what we’re doing. First it started with us wanting to help other people so we came up with the Hello Books idea, which has slightly changed track.

It meant that I got hold of the courses that we’re bringing to fruition at the moment and push them through, and spurred ourselves on. And I think at the same time as there being a fear about an economic downturn, for the individual entrepreneurs, this is a period of almost enthusiasm I’d say. It’s not exploitative, it’s just, it’s instinct, survival instinct.

And this, in some ways, can be a good time to be in the position that we’re in. I’ve got to be careful with this language because you don’t want to be that company that says, “Oh, you can make money out of this recession.” But the truth is that there is opportunity there.

And the economy, by the way, relies on us doing our best at this point because we do need to keep on growing.

We’re in a sector that can grow, right? So there’s opportunities.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. I wouldn’t focus on the recession, we’ll get to that eventually. In the first instance, we need to concentrate on the fact that people are frightened, they’re staying at home because they have to. And it’s dealing with, how do you deal with that as a writer?

At completely unprecedented circumstances where you can’t hang out with people, you can’t go to work, you’ve got new responsibilities, you may be suddenly teaching your kids like me and Lucy here.

We’ve got two, a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, and we are now homeschooling them and that is bloody difficult. I have a whole new respect for teachers as to how they manage classrooms full of Samuels, one Samuel is enough for us, basically.

I wanted to talk about how people are getting by in the present circumstances. And, there’s a few things I think we can maybe talk about. And James doesn’t know, I’ve actually written notes for this. So James has no idea what I’m about to waffle on about, so we’re going to be a free… it’s going to be a free association for the next half an hour or so.

I think we could just talk about generally mindset and schedule and how you manage in a situation like this. Because people will be having different reactions to events and the news and how that’s impacted on all of our lives.

We can then look at writing, so actually, how do we do the writing at a time like this. And then it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t talk about advertising and marketing. So I think we can talk about that too because I think that’s very exciting at the moment.

And I’m actually having, yesterday I had my best day outside of a launch for, I don’t know, I haven’t checked, but probably a year. So, we can talk about that and the opportunities that have been presented to us by current events. What do you think James?

James Blatch: I think that’s absolutely right.

Did you notice that I was replying to an urgent text message whilst you were saying that?

Mark Dawson: I did. It’s very professional of you.

What I’d say first of all is, I swore I would not necessarily say who this writer was because I like him very much and I think he’s a lovely guy, but I think this was a little bit …. He posted a meme on Facebook saying that if you don’t come out of this… I’m going to completely paraphrase so if he’s listening I apologize and I don’t intend to get this wrong but I probably will. He said if you don’t come out of this situation without a new skill you’re lazy.

James Blatch: Right.

Mark Dawson: Something along those lines. You know what I mean, it’s that kind of thing.

I understand the gist of that in that this can be seen as an opportunity, I completely agree with that, it could be seen that way. But everyone’s circumstances are different.

Some writers will be having to look after their kids now, like me. Some writers will be very worried, they won’t get to work because they’re very worried about their parents or themselves or maybe they’re vulnerable, they have health problems that make them more susceptible to this. And others will just be so scared of the news they will be kind of cocooned and not be able to concentrate on getting new words out.

So to say that if you don’t write a new book or master advertising whilst we’re all locked down, because if you don’t do it, this is the best opportunity you’ll ever get and if you’re not doing that then there’s something not quite right with your mindset. I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think that’s helpful.

And again, this author did go in and qualify the post. He explained what he meant, and he didn’t quite mean what the meme would’ve suggested. But anyway, I think you have to come to this with a position of empathy and sympathy. And everyone is going to be dealing with this in a different way.

The main thing is just getting through it. It’s the 13th of April, 12th of April, 13th of April as we record this right now. I don’t even know what day it is basically, I think it’s Monday.

James Blatch: It’s my wife’s birthday.

Mark Dawson: Your wife’s birthday.

James Blatch: I have to know what day it is.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. It’s just a completely messed up situation, and everything is upside down. And the main thing is just getting through it with our families and our sanity intact, right? That’s the way I’m dealing with it. So don’t feel pressure.

You can find an opportunity in these kinds of situations, which is why we’re doing Hello Books, and it’s why we’ve got a new course coming out. So there are opportunities to do things like that, and I had a couple of books out in the midst of this as well, but those were pre-written books so that was when they were being launched.

But, I’m not putting myself under any pressure, I don’t expect to be very productive in the next five weeks, and that’s fine. The way I’m dealing with it is, anything I can do work-wise is great but my focus is on my family right now. And I’m sure you feel the same way.

James Blatch: Definitely. And I think following guidelines and keeping your focus on elderly relatives and doing what you need, and neighbors and so on, that is the first priority all of us must have.

And actually I think in that is some sanity as well. Because I think if you don’t have that talk, if you don’t put those priorities first, you can sit there and dwell on things. And I know some people are struggling.

I’ve seen some posts, social media posts, from friends and people in our community who are struggling at the moment. But yeah, just being methodical about dealing with the situation we’ve got, which is a very serious one, particularly for those with a health vulnerability first and foremost.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. So sanity is the main thing. I’m really lucky where I live, we have a big house, we have a nice garden, and we’re in the middle of the countryside in a small village. I take the dog out for an hour and I’ve been doing fairly, almost every day I’ve done a Facebook live into the group just answering questions whilst I’m taking the dog out, which is a nice way for me to stay connected with the community whilst also doing… I love walking the dog, it’s my kind of, my mental well-being time for an hour a day. So, that’s a priority for me, to make sure I get out. And then, if I can write, then that’s great.

And the way I’ve done it is I’ve just looked at my schedule and I’ve tried to work out what needs to be done, what do I have to do. I don’t have to write, so that is not my priority at the moment.

I have to look after the kids and I have to look after the family. I have to exercise. These are all much more important. So, when the kids go back, they’re in Easter holidays at the moment, so when they go back to school, which will just really, it’ll make no difference whatsoever because they’ll still be at home, we’ll be homeschooling them again.

I don’t think it’s fair of me to ask Lucy to teach a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, because they’re both at different levels, they don’t always get on all that well together. It’s very stressful, so we have to divide and conquer.

So that might mean that I do something with Freya, Lucy does something with Samuel, and that’s what we do. So that is more important to me than sitting down and writing.

The way I’ve dealt with it is I want to get some writing done, it doesn’t have to be my usual 3,000 words a day, it can be much less than that. So until quite recently I was getting up at about 5:15 and writing from, say, 5:45 until 9:00. That would be time when the house is quiet, even the dog is asleep. So I’m just in this office, it’s dark outside, then dawn comes out which is quite pretty, and I’ll get as much done as I can.

James Blatch: It’s nice of her, does she bring some tea when she comes out?

Mark Dawson: The dog? It’s a ‘he’.

James Blatch: Dawn.

Mark Dawson: The dog. Oh the dawn, yes, the dawn. The dawn comes out. Yeah, brings the tea.

James Blatch: Come on, keep up.

Mark Dawson: Very good joke. So yeah, and then I’ll go to bed maybe at 9:00. Once we get between 9:00 in the morning and 9:00 at night, or until the kids go to bed, I’m full dad, I’m full-time dad, stroke teacher, stroke referee.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: All the tasks that we have to do as parents. And that’s fine. It annoyed me to start with because I’m like, “I want to write,” but then you think of it, this is it, there is no other way around it, you just have to squeeze what you can out of your schedule, as much as you can without pushing yourself too hard. And it is what it is.

James Blatch: Well you should go back and mention that everyone’s going to be in different situations.

Mark Dawson: Yep.

James Blatch: And there will be people for whom the timing is not good and they have quit their 9-5 job in February. They may know that they need to sell ‘x’ amount every month to pay their bills. And suddenly their productivity drops through the bottom because they’re in a similar situation to you with children. That’s going to be tough for them.

Any words of advice?

Mark Dawson: Again, you have to prioritize and do what you can. We’ll get on to what we can do outside of new writing in terms of advertising in a minute because there are plenty of things that we can do over there.

On the other hand, I saw Michelle Madow posted, is again a friend of SPF, one of our early course members who did very well with the ads course, and she said her life isn’t any different at all. She’s a single girl, lives on her own, is an introvert, probably doesn’t go out all that much, and now she can’t go out all that much because she’s writing.

So, there’ll be some authors who’ll be like, “This is no change to my life at all apart from the fact that it’s quite scary outside.” And they’ll be writing the same kind of thing.

But, we mustn’t also mustn’t compare ourselves to people in different situations because everyone is different, everyone has different demands. There’s no point comparing my opportunity with hers. She can write as much as she wants within reason, I have very tight limits on what I can do. And that’s fine. I’m not going to get myself worked up about that. It’s just that that’s life right now.

James Blatch: And there will of course be people who have a 9-5 job that’s annoyingly inconvenient for their writing career, and that’s suddenly gone away or they’ve been furloughed at the expression or they’re working from home where there’s a lot more flexibility and time. So some people are able to make merry at the moment with their writing career.

Mark Dawson: Some people will be being paid 80% of their salary and will not have to work. Although that’s worrying because will there be a job when they want to go back? At the same time, that can be turned around and seen as an opportunity to get some words down.

That’s what I wanted to talk about. We’ll just start with the mindset and just doing what you can and not beating yourself up too much because there’s enough to worry about right now without worrying about did you get the words you want to get down today.

So then, just kind of a couple of practical things or one practical thing before we get on to advertising. Thinking about writing, if you don’t have that much time, this might be a good time to think about dictation, because dictation… I’m editing right now rather than writing new stuff but I know that when I’m dictating fresh material, my words per hour is probably about 3,000, let’s say it’s 2,000 words an hour. Now, when I’m writing normally that might be how many words I can do a day.

It’s a good time to start thinking about dictation. We’ve spoken about dictation before. Scott Baker has a good book on dictation that I’d recommend you take a look at. Things like Dragon, it’s really only for PCs now, it’s a good piece of software.

I discovered the other day that the actual inbuilt Mac dictation is pretty good for shorter things like answering emails and stuff. I don’t know how good it would be for extended fiction writing, but it might be worth testing that. Think about dictation, that’s an opportunity.

The other thing is just to write in small bursts when you’re able to. So maybe you get 10 minutes, and that’s all you’ve got, maybe just type out something on your phone or just do something… Maybe you’ve got half an hour, that’s all you’ve got in a day. If you can write 100 or 200 words, look at that as a success.

And also think about that as you aggregate that 200 words a day, that’s going to be 1,000 words Monday to Friday, maybe you can do another couple of hundred on Saturday, 300 on Sunday, suddenly you’ve got 1,500 to 1,600 words.

If you could do that over the course of four, five weeks it doesn’t take too long to start to see you have something a little bit more substantial to start working on. So, any words at all is a good success, is a good result right now, and something that you should be pleased about and proud about. So, just think about that.

And then finally, the other thing, just on craft and how to get the words down. We’re all going out and exercising now, at least I hope that we are. At least in the UK the government allows us one exercise, an hour for exercise I think it is, a day.

And if you are out and about, I’ve always got my best ideas when I’m walking or running, so just take a notepad with you if you’re going out for a walk. Or take your phone and type something down and just think about what could you write about when you next get the chance, what scene could you write about. Think about little snippets of dialogue that you’d like to start with.

Well, start plotting, think about… you’re going to plot something and start… What? What would you like to write about, what idea could you start to generate and think about and start to build a novel around that little idea. And you start thinking about that, you’re going to get maybe five, six, seven hours a week when you’re out walking, exercising. Just switching across to that other part of your brain where you do that kind of creative thinking.

And then when you get back to your office or your desk or whatever it is, or your study or your kitchen table, wherever it is that you’re writing, then start thinking about how can I… let’s see if I can write 50 words about that idea that I had. And then maybe the next day write 100 words.

Again, before you know it, maybe at the end of this process you come out with an idea for a novel. I said this on the podcast before, I’m absolutely sure that there will be authors in this situation now who are writing, who will write fantastic novels that may never have got written were it not for the fact that they were able to find a little bit of time in all this craziness to start thinking about that thing they’d always wanted to do.

James Blatch: Love in a time of COVID-19.

Mark Dawson: Yes. I’ve always thought that’s… COVID-19 is terrible name isn’t it? We need to give it a…

James Blatch: Yeah. Because they’ve had so romantic, more romantic names, well they’ve been geographic names in the past and that’s suddenly become unfashionable.

Mark Dawson: Is it because Spanish flu had nothing to do with Spain, for example?

James Blatch: No. It came from Kansas or somewhere, didn’t it?

Mark Dawson: Yeah. So they’re very deliberately not stigmatizing areas by name.
James Blatch: Ebola is a location isn’t it? And West Nile.

Mark Dawson: It is.

James Blatch: Anyway, so it’s COVID-19. But it will seep into the…

Mark Dawson: It will.

James Blatch: It already has seeped into our landscape of vocabulary. Love in the time of Corona sounds a bit better.

Mark Dawson: Yes.

James Blatch: Yes. I mean I think that, that’s actually… just on this subject, there’s something slightly… because this has been such a fundamental change in our behaviors, our human behaviors, everyone’s made this observation, but it’s suddenly jarring to watch a film or TV episode set before this period where people are hugging and shaking hands and just acting normally and every time you see it you can’t help but think, “Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?”

Do you think this is going to have, the whole planet having gone through this, it’s going to have an impact on writing in the future?

Mark Dawson: No, not really. This will pass. This is really current and vivid right now so it is difficult to look at other things pre-virus. And, I was watching, don’t judge me, I was watching Britain’s Got Talent at the weekend and yeah that was seeing people, crowds of people hanging out together, it did feel kind of weird.

James Blatch: Even in Contagion actually. Even in Contagion where they do talk about social distancing, they don’t really practice it. In the film people are still shaking hands in the middle of it. They got a lot right in that film. But, that’s one thing they didn’t anticipate that we are now all suddenly very aware of close proximity. It’s perfect.

Mark Dawson: I think, as we move out of this, this will feel like a weird fever dream, right? In six months time maybe, I think this will feel quite different. And we will move on and we will get back to normal life.

I have had for ages a really good idea for a pandemic dystopian novel, I could write it in this period but I decided not to because I don’t really want to do that and it’s not something I want to think about in my creative life as well as everything else. I might do it in a year or two’s time.

But, people will be writing, there’ll be novels coming out of this about pandemics and dystopias and things like that. But then on the other hand there’ll be pure escapists writing. I mean, Milton, I’m writing a Milton book now, editing one. There’ll be no mention of viruses, in his world it never happened.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: That’s the way I look at it. I don’t think it will have a very significant effect.

James Blatch: I suppose anything is if you are writing a contemporary book set in a few years time, a lot of those books will have some passing mention of the period.

Mark Dawson: There might be.

James Blatch: Because it was just a shared experience for…

Mark Dawson: Yeah, there might. But even a contemporary novel is set in a fictional world.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: So you don’t have to reference everything. Some people will and that’s fine but I don’t think you have to.

James Blatch: I think the point you’re making about exercising, dog walks, and so on is a very good one. I mean I certainly have my better ideas… There’s something about giving your brain some space, I think it’s the whole basis of meditation.

Something I think I want to get into meditation at some point. I do understand that thing about when you’re thinking about something else, the ideas parallel to that come up. Certainly that’s how my brain works, definitely, when I’m out free-forming, allowing my mind just to wander. Little things suddenly pop up, “Oh yeah, that would make sense.”

And this is an opportunity for those of us have quite busy lifestyles to take advantage of that and just allow your brain to breathe a little bit for ideas and get those creative juices running.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, absolutely. Yes, so that’s schedule and mindset and actually how… some little tips as to ways that you could accelerate the writing in the little time that you might have to do it.

The other thing which I’ve mentioned a lot on my Facebook lives, because it’s something that I’m known for, and that’s advertising. We’ve had a few posts in the group talking about are sales up or down for writers.

And I don’t say this to brag, and there’s nothing special about me or my books that is any different from anybody else, but my sales are well up over the last week to 10 days.

As I said, I had my biggest day outside of a launch possibly for 12 months, 18 months maybe, yesterday. And that’s the third of three really strong days of strong book sales.

The way I’m kind of looking at that, the reasons for that, there’s two reasons. The first one is that there is very, very high demand in readers right now for content to read. Because people are at home, they are looking for something to do and reading is a pretty good way to actually get that kind of escape from the daily life. It’s cheap.

Reading always does well in times of financial difficulty, it’s cheaper than going to the cinema. In terms of how much you need to pay for an hour of entertainment, books compare extremely well with everything else. Especially my books, $4.99, $5.99, they compare really well with the new Trolls movie which I’ll probably be renting for the kids at some point over the next week, I think it’s about $20. Because it’s the first big film to miss the cinema and go straight to home rental.

You could buy five of my books for that and be entertained for a whole week. I’m not comparing my books to Trolls, obviously people looking for Milton are not going to be watching Trolls, probably.

So, you’ve got the really high demand, people looking to do then, also, we are selling digital products so we don’t even have an Amazon delivery driver coming around handing us a cardboard package with a book inside it. So you’re not touching anybody, you’re not seeing anybody. It’s all digital, it’s all very hygienic, straight onto devices.

Now the kind of the thing that compliments that really well is the fact that in advertising markets and especially Facebook, much more so than Amazon right now, especially in Facebook, a lot of the big advertising budgets are not in the field at the moment.

Anyone with a brick and mortar store, there’s no point in them advertising right now because the stores are shut and people can’t go to them. There’s not much point advertising cars because, again, people aren’t interested in buying cars right now.

I’m starting to see on Facebook, I saw today an ad for a little device that you add to your keyring that enables you to, it’s supposed to have sterling silver which is antibacterial, to press numbers on keypads.

James Blatch: Ah.

Mark Dawson: And a little hook to open a door. I’ve never seen that before on my news feed because well obviously that product didn’t exist about two weeks ago. But, you’re seeing the big spends have gone.

The upside to that is that the CPC, and I posted on this in the Facebook Mastery group today, and CPCs or cost per click, just general advertising costs are down by about 50% in the U.S. and the UK. I’m getting clicks now in the UK for about 10 cents a click.

Normally, in thrillers, I have to work quite hard to find productive new audiences after all the advertising I’ve done, you’re usually looking at about 30 to 35 cents a click. So it’s down by more than 50%, two thirds off.

I’m seeing similar kinds of effects in the U.S. which just means that advertising right now is like, it is a perfect storm for people like us with digital products, who know how to advertise, especially on Facebook. And I’m getting returns on investment, they’re all positive, no matter how I calculate it.

I’ve been using affiliate tracking, that is up, using baselines, so comparing pre and post ads and revenues, that’s up. And looking at read-through, that is way, way up. We’re looking at not just the first book in the series, maybe they’ll read three or four. Assuming that read-through’s probably a bit higher right now because people have got more time to read, that’s way up as well.

So, on all of the metrics I’m looking at, advertising it’s really, really good time to be advertising.

James Blatch: That’s interesting that you’ve seen that. I think that there are some official notes from Facebook that you posted into the group today, came via our agency which spends a gazillion every week on behalf of people on Facebook and they’re certainly seeing some significant changes to the market.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, they are. It’s a universal thing, so costs are just down for everyone. And that’s definitely true for me.

I think Facebook is where my focus would be right now, and I love Amazon ads, I’m still spending a lot on Amazon, it’s probably about $500 a day on Amazon ads at the moment, in that kind of ball park.

Costs are knocked down there and the reason for that is I suspect the Amazon ads, or the auction that I’m in, well that we are in as authors is with other people in exactly the same position as us. So we’re not necessarily bidding for inventory on the detail pages, we’re not competing with Procter & Gamble on a book page, we’re competing with other authors.

And all of those authors, provided they still have the money to invest in the ads, will still be advertising because the clever ones will have worked out this is a very good time to be advertising.

With Facebook it’s different. Over the years I have seen a migration of ad budget from Facebook to Amazon. But from my perspective certainly it looks like it will go the other way now, I’m going to put more money into Facebook. Either maintain the budget or slightly reduce the budget on Amazon depending on how bullish I want to be about it.

I think Facebook is where I would be focusing on as an author right now, rather than just exclusively concentrating on Amazon.

James Blatch: What else have you got on your list?

Mark Dawson: Just a couple of things really. Things like, do some countdown deals right now. Offer value to readers. Email your list, run a countdown deal, so reduce the price on a book from $5 to $1, you’ll still get 70% on that so you’re still making 70 cents per sale rather than the 35 you’d be making if it was normally at that level.

And give your list, reward your list who are… they’re readers, they want to read, give them something that they will enjoy. Look at that.

I’m also running some, what I call re-engagement ads right now. I won’t go into the reader funnel in too much detail now. But at the bottom of the funnel you’ve got kind of the hot zone where your main list is, your Facebook fans, people who follow you on BookBub, that kind of area where you know they like you.

For me, what I’m doing with Facebook is I’m generating a big custom audience using those sources, so using my mailing list, for example. And then I have a carousel ad running into them with all five of the Milton box sets.

The copy in the ad is, “Are you looking for a distraction?” Not pushing the virus, because I think that feels crass, but by just telling them that, “Do you want to escape from the news for an hour?” Something along those lines.

And then reminding them that you could complete, “Did you know that there are 15 books in the Milton Series and you can complete your collection with these great value box sets.” And then you have the five individual box sets in a carousel.

So you’re telling readers… they may well have bought the first two box sets and they’ve forgotten about you. Maybe they read something else, and then they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know there was another three.”

Let’s say you decide, “I really like those books, I’m going to buy one.” That’s a $10 purchase. It’s great value for them because they get three novels which will entertain them for a week. I get 70% of $10. So, that’s a pretty good sale for me.

That’s working pretty well. And then just finally, don’t feel there’s the pressure to get new material out because one of the main benefits of how we sell books these days is that, a book is new to a reader when they’re introduced to it. It doesn’t matter that it was five years ago.

We don’t have to worry about a limited amount of shelf space, our books are always available. And we can introduce them to new readers, hundreds of thousands of new readers using the techniques that we talk about on the podcast.

To each of those readers who see that book, that is a new book to them. It might as well have been released yesterday. And if you have other books following them then you can get them to buy and enjoy the first book. And then you encourage them to go on and buy others, and that’s where you make most of your money.

So, there you go. Hopefully that’s a positive… There is an opportunity in difficult times. Although this is difficult for everyone and everyone will be reacting in different ways, and I’m occasionally as frightened as the next person.

Samuel had a temperature last night, we were like, “Here we go.” He’s fine this morning. It affects everyone in different ways. But, I feel reasonably, in fact I feel very positive about the short to medium-term health of my author business and selling books and I think other authors should feel that way too.

James Blatch: Great. Well that’s, I think, a good take on everything that’s happening. We’re very interested in people’s experience as well because this is a situation that’s developing and you may be seeing things differently from us, so do post into our Facebook group.

Our community group’s going very well at the moment, that’s SPF secret group, I think is what it is, forward slash if you look for groups, but if you just search for ‘Self Publishing Formula’ on Facebook you’ll find that group.

I think also don’t be afraid to share some problems that you have. It’s funny how our dog has become lame yesterday, actually yelping, can’t stand up. And so it’s a worry for us.

But things like that become very difficult because the vet is a complete triaged emergency system. They’re overwhelmed. They don’t want to see animals and this is absolutely essential. So we’ve been through quite a process today. And Gill’s got this slot where she has to be in the car park, where they’re going to drop some drugs next to the car like a drug deal.

Mark Dawson: We’ve done that.

James Blatch: Yeah. So all of that. So small things become quite difficult in this environment and don’t be afraid to ask for help in our group as well, just to take the burden off you. If you’re struggling trying to solve a problem, you may get some help from each other here as well.

Mark Dawson: We have, out of that window there, we have a 2,000 liter kerosene tank. That is where our heating comes from in the countryside. And I discovered it was leaking last Friday.

James Blatch: Whilst you were leaning over it with your cigarette.

Mark Dawson: Outside, smoking a fag outside. Technically that is an emergency. And I mean, luckily I was able to find someone who came out, he was brilliant, he came out within six hours and pumped it out into two temporary tanks. We now have very unsightly temporary tanks outside, but they aren’t going to leak. And that’s fine. So again, it doesn’t look very nice, but I don’t care, it’s not going to blow my house up. So I’ll take that.

There are going to be problems and that will be the case for people who are writing as well with issues. But yeah, they should be shared, share them in the community. And, you’ll probably get lots of lovely responses.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: You might even get a natch response from me depending on what mood I’m in.

James Blatch: Depends on how Samuel’s been during his school lesson.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. Exactly.

James Blatch: And the good news, the long-term good news is that you’re in the right business here. If making money from selling books is something that’s in your future, that’s what you rely on now or you want to rely on in the future or it’s going to be something you’re going to pay for your vacations with, you’re in the right place because these are the types of industries that will go on and do well and lead us out of this problem.

I think that is it probably, Mark. I should say I was going to say that, for the Hello Books project, if you’re interested in somebody, you might be interested in getting a slot on one of those promotions in the future, we’ll probably open a wait list up to get some early interest.

If you go to selfpublishingformula.com/hellobooks, we’ll have something there. I will try, if I can. We’ve only just got, we’ve won in this auction, we’ve won hellobooks.com, I’ll try and get something set up on hellobooks.com and it might not be there by the time this podcast goes out. It also might need to be parked while the developers work with it, but I don’t know.

Mark Dawson: I think that’s it too. Yes, finding time to record the podcast is quite hard. So for me to actually find an hour when I’m not needed is… I think probably you may have heard the door to the study was opening and closing a bit, so that was probably the kids running in and realizing they weren’t supposed to disturb daddy.

But, it’s lunch time now so I’m going to go and make sure everyone is still alive. And then we’ll be entertaining the children for the afternoon.

James Blatch: Okay. Well look, we wish you all well. Hope you stay safe, hope you’re coping with the situation and we will be that consistent voice in your ear every Friday.

We’re going to be back next Friday, don’t you worry about that, we will be here. You can rely on us. So that’s it. All that leaves me to say is that’s a goodbye from him.

Mark Dawson: And it’s a goodbye from me. Goodbye.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

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