SPS-242: Strength in Numbers: How to Write 2 Books a Month – with Steven Higgs
Perhaps sometimes ignorance is bliss. Steve Griggs leaped into writing cozy mysteries without ever having read one. With the habit of hard work and discipline learned from his army days, he’s now on track to earn half a million dollars this year.
- Starting from zero and trying to get traditionally published
- Learning about indie publishing and speaking that language
- Increasing ad spend to increase revenue
- The sacrifices made for the writing life
- The importance of knowing who your reader is
- Researching tropes before starting a new series
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
COURSE: To be notified when the SPF 101 course will be open for enrolment visit this page.
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-242: Strength in Numbers: How to Write 2 Books a Month - with Steven Higgs
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
Steve Higgs: The first draft is my last draft, every single time. I have been called a unicorn a few times, I'm rare.
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. It's the Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: I'm very excited, Mark, because tomorrow I'm interviewing the second female RAF Tornado pilot.
Mark Dawson: Oh, dear. Well, it's good for her, but I'm not sure. Does she know what she's letting herself in for, basically?
James Blatch: I don't think she does.
Mark Dawson: That's the question.
James Blatch: She'll be onto the lawyers straightaway afterwards, for the restraining order.
Mark Dawson: Did you set this interview up?
James Blatch: I did, I did.
Mark Dawson: Yes, thank you. That's all I need to know. Move on.
James Blatch: She's written an excellent book.
Mark Dawson: Oh, I like it and well, for the listeners, James. It's An Officer, Not A Gentleman. That's a really good title, like it.
James Blatch: Yeah, good title with a nice cover. And she self-published it and last time I looked it was in the low thousands in the Kindle store, in the UK with 140 odd five star reviews. So she's no slouch, Mark.
I can tell you that what she turns her mind to, I think she does motivational speaking as well. So it might be this book was the sort of nonfiction book we often talk about for somebody who has a consulting business. But you can make money through books, if you find that audience and I think she's done that. Anyway, we'll find out, I will, obviously.
Mark Dawson: Can you?
James Blatch: Yes, you can.
Mark Dawson: You can make money through books?
James Blatch: So I will chat to her, I'm excited about that.
I'm also excited about today's interview, he also has a military connection, he served in the British Army. His name is Steve Higgs and we are going to find out how to apply yourself to turn your second career into a fantastic, lucrative career as an author. And all it takes is dedication, a bit like Roy Castle, if you're British and old enough, you remember that.
Let us say a big thank you to Matthew Doggett from Alabama USA, who has become a Patreon supporter of the Self-Publishing Show this week and Matthew has joined the ranks of people with direct access to lots of goodies in the show. You can go to patreon.com/selfpublishingshow if you would like to join Matthew.
A couple of parish notices, our one-on-one course is going to be open for business on September the 23rd. So 22 days from the moment we are recording this. But this will go out on Friday, so less than that even. It's going to be open for a couple of weeks, the one-on-one course. And I think, Mark, shall we keep our 24 month payment plan?
Mark Dawson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Blatch: I think we'll keep that in place because it's still, I know, a tough environment for people and probably going to get tougher economically. At least the older economy is going to get tougher. I think the digital economy has had a fill-up this year and that may well continue into next year as well. So in fact, as somebody once said, there's never been a better time to be a writer.
Mark Dawson: There's never been a better time to own shares in Apple. I don't know if you saw yesterday, Apple is now worth more than the entire FTSE 100, two billion.
James Blatch: Tesla has also rescued my very limited and terrible share portfolio. Tesla has done very well as well.
Okay, just one digital thing I do want to mention, it's just actually broken today and I noticed it and it's slightly annoying. Is that Google have added a 2% tax to every ad transaction in the UK and Austria. Now, they done this in response to the governments of these countries. The UK, I know more about than the Austrian situation. But in the UK they added a 2% tax to search engines because of what the government called a misalignment between the volume of trade that they do in a country and the tax they pay in that country. And of course, with you're spread across many countries, you have to make decisions about where you process your cash and why would you decide to process your cash in a country where it charges 20% corporation tax versus one that charges 12.
However, that's irritating to the UK government. So they introduced this 2% tax and promptly today, Google have emailed everybody who has an ads account with them, saying they're adding 2% to every transaction, which is, not really, I think, the point of that tax. It was for them to pay, not to pass onto business owners like ourselves.
But it underlines our position really on Google, Google AdWords, and YouTube ads for authors doesn't really make financial sense. Hasn't made financial sense since they changed some of the rules. Particularly with YouTube ads and makes even less sense now, it's going to be more expensive to advertise, so yeah. Another nail that particular coffin, as far as authors are concerned.
If, on the other hand, Mark, you're selling JCBs or do Americans have JCBs? My camera's gone weird again. Anyway, I'm in the dark-
Mark Dawson: I don't know.
James Blatch: Large stick, I think I drove past a big JCB plant in Georgia once.
Mark Dawson: They call them backhoes.
James Blatch: Do they?
Mark Dawson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Blatch: Wow, I did not know that. Have you made that up?
Mark Dawson: No, I saw it on kids' TV. My son likes something called, well used to like something called Blippi and Blippi is, well basically he's a gazillionaire. Made lots of money off parents like me. But one of the things he did, was to go on a tour of, or drive a backhoe around. And I wondered for a while what that was. But it's actually, it's a JCB digger.
James Blatch: A digger, yeah, so basically a big yellow digger that you get on sites. But yeah, if you're selling big things like that, I think Adwords and YouTube ads still works. Now talking of children's books and diggers, Mark Dawson, the thriller writer, the police procedural or would you describe your Atticus Finch as? Detective Finch, Atticus is something else.
Mark Dawson: Priest.
James Blatch: Priest, detective.
Mark Dawson: Yes, I call those detective stories, yes. That's right.
James Blatch: You're now going to add another string to your bow.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, I am. So we're looking to do some kids' books. I put up a post in the Community a couple of weeks ago, asking for authors who wanted to work with me on the project. And this is what it will be. We're going to do some jointly written kids' books.
Won't say too much about the title yet or it's going to kind of harken back to the Enid Blyton, Secret Seven, Famous Five books. And going to be set in Southwold, which is a lovely, very quaint and quite rich town on the East Coast of England, near where I come from, very Victorian and chi-chi, but quite fun.
I think we're going to do three books to start with and we're going to see how we do. We're going to probably do it in my daughter's name or a combination of my kids' names. So might have my name as a surname and the authors will all be, will be referenced inside, the ones that we're working with. And yeah, looking to get three out and probably going to be looking to do mostly in print.
It's going to be an interesting experiment. I'll definitely have to pick Karen Inglis' brains at some point because she's done really well with her book, The Secret Lake I think. And yeah, going to concentrate on getting those books into normal bookshops, indie bookshops.
James Blatch: Good, yeah, let's call her Karen Inglis though.
Mark Dawson: Inglis, that's right, yes. And may look at offset printing rather than Print On Demand, may look at Fulfilled By Amazon rather than KDP Print. So yeah, lots of different things I want to try to see how this might work. Yeah, I think it could be fun.
I don't think there are that many successful indie selling loads and loads in kids' books. Karen is certainly one of them, we know a few others. But I want to try my hand at it, see if we can, and do that. And also, and the main thing is for something that my daughter can read and enjoy. I was in bed yesterday, reading the first three chapters to her, which was really fun, and she enjoyed it. So we'll see. But it'd be a good little experiment to try.
James Blatch: Fulfilled By Amazon is where you organise the printing and your printers or whoever ship to a central location, for Amazon then to do the sending out.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, Amazon will stock it, and so you pay a fee for basically warehousing. Not a huge amount from what I can see and then Amazon has a fulfilment fee. So it's basically postage, packing, and their margin on top. So just got to sit down and do some sums.
I don't know exactly what the per copy cost will be, obviously the more you print, the cheaper it will be. And trying to, I think 6.99 in the UK is the sweet spot for kids' books of the kind that we're marketing or aiming to market. So I'm not sure there's going to be huge margin in there for us. But we'll see, we'll see. I may look at the Print On Demand option if the others don't work.
James Blatch: Presumably somebody somewhere has done the sums on a normal paperback Print On Demand versus Amazon fulfilment. I mean, obviously you got to pay upfront to have it printed. But if you've got the money to do that, is it worth doing that over POD?
Mark Dawson: I think it might be, I think you might be looking at about 2 to 2.50 per copy and this is just me guessing a little. We've done a little bit, before I did the deal with Welbeck, we were looking at running a project to print Milton books ourselves. And obviously you pay less the more you print, but you're paying more in terms of the amount you're spending.
So let's say you're looking at say two pounds per copy for 40 or 50,000 word novel. Then you add in another couple of quid for Amazon's fulfilment, then another maybe a bit on top of that warehousing. You're getting up towards the four, five pound mark. So you might be looking at a margin of two pounds. But then obviously the bookshop's going to want a cut off that as well. So it'll be interesting to see how that plays out. But I'll look into it and we'll report as we get into the project.
James Blatch: Yeah, that will be interesting. Have you got your character names yet? Is it going to be a central character or different stories in one universe?
Mark Dawson: No, four characters, four children and a dog. So in kind of the time honoured Enid Blyton fashion. And they each have their own characteristics, actually going to have a, and looking at my watch here, in 10 minutes we have to get a move on. I've got a call with the writer who's doing the first book. A writer called Allen, who is really good, very, very pleased whether how that's looking at the moment.
James Blatch: Good, okay, well we can move on. Actually, I forgot to say that if you definitely are interested in 101 and you want to notified when the course is open, you can go to selfpublishingformula.com/101, that will be the link to the page to sign up when it's open. But between now and then that will be a wait list that you can join to get an email when it starts.
Steve Higgs, yes, a British Army NCO, then an officer I believe, has gone through the mill, I think, on the military front. And then turned his mind to writing. And this is revealed in this interview, interestingly, not one of these people who was a prolific reader and always wanted to write. This is somebody who has turned their mind to this whole area, learned it, and boy, has he mastered it as well. So let's hear from Steve Higgs.
Steve, very warm welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. Nice to have somebody, an English mate down the road, in sunny England.
Steve Higgs: Right, I guess I'm not aware of who you have on, on a regular basis and what divide might be. Thank you for having me anyway.
James Blatch: You're very welcome. 70% probably in The United States of America and Canada probably and then not so many in the UK, Australia, and South Africa. We need to work harder to get, is generally I suppose English speaking countries, even fewer from Germany, we've had one German I think, I can think of. No two, two Germans and no Frenchmen or Frenchwomen, that's terrible. Makes us sound very little Englander at SPF. We need to broaden our horizons.
Steve Higgs: Yes.
James Blatch: Okay, look, we're going to talk about your amazing success story. But let's just very briefly just talk about your books before we get into the nitty gritty of how you went from not writing, I think, in your 30s, to where you are today.
The first thing I'm going to say, if I look down at Steve Higgs in Amazon, is what a range of genres and covers, quite an array and quite a spectrum I would say.
Steve Higgs: Yes. I guess you're not wrong. They, I think, all have kind of the same flavour and feel. I get actually, a lot of people who say they read everything and I know Mark talks about the value of a new lead, a value of a new reader. I'm currently writing book 41 and I have people who have read all 40 across supernatural, suspense, urban fantasy and cozy mystery.
James Blatch: Wow, yeah. I think probably one of the things is you've changed your cover style a little bit. So if I look at the Patricia Fisher Mysteries, give me the description you gave for, just off your description for-
Steve Higgs: Oh yeah, a die hard with Angela Lansbury in the lead role.
James Blatch: Perfect and I can see you've played about a little bit with the cover style. So we've got sort of a more photographic style, maybe an older book. And then an illustrated, almost whimsical cover of a later one, for a Mug Shot.
Steve Higgs: Well actually, the cartoonish, if you like, the vector covers are the older.
James Blatch: Are they? Okay.
Steve Higgs: And that's been going throughout and you're referring to the cover on The Missing Sapphire of Zangrabar, which was the first book. It was actually an interesting bank story of how that one came about. But that cover is something I tried recently just because and maybe this something we'll touch on, I don't really know what I'm doing.
I say that to a lot of people because now that I am having success, I get people messaging me and contacting me and wanting to know what my secret sauce is. I'm still trying to work that out for myself. And the real joy of that is they might be ahead of me when I finally do work them out. But that cover, it's just a more in keeping with the mystery genre, rather than that sort of niche cozy, see how people reacted to it.
James Blatch: Yes, it's more Agatha Raisin, which is a BBC series at the moment, isn't it, with a murder mystery, which is quite whimsical, very mystery, very Agatha Christie inspired.
Steve Higgs: Yeah, I get a lot of people comparing the two, what I've written and then that which again, is completely by accident because I've never read an Agatha Raisin book.
James Blatch: So you are the accident man, everything is by accident. Well, let's see. I like a challenge. Let's see if I can work out for you, how you're successful, I hope I don't change anything because you've been doing extremely well, just with your blind moving forward.
Okay, let's start from the beginning then. I read your bio and I know that you wanted to write as a child, like I did. Wrote a few essays and halfheartedly start and stopped books.
And then decades go by with doing I don't think anything on the writing front really, is that right?
Steve Higgs: Well yes, very much. I was writing a column for a forces magazine, I was in the Army for 25 years and I was writing a few other articles and suchlike. But while I had aspirations to write novels, I never really found the time. I always had other things I was busying myself with. The Army was very big on education, so I was studying a bachelor's degree or studying a master's degree and then I was studying another master's degree. And those things eat very much into your time.
So it kept ticking away at the back of my head, there was this desire to tell these stories. Stories bubbling in my head, and one of which I'm writing now, which I first started drafting 25 years ago or something very similar to that. But it was only really right at the final days of my Army career, I sort of knuckled down and said, "If you're going to do it, you need to shut up and do it. You're 40 now, man. So get on with it."
James Blatch: And you wrote what then? So you had these stories bubbling around.
Was it always these kind of murder mystery stories?
Steve Higgs: No. I had a lot and I still have a lot, and you can't see from where you're sat, but all around me in my lovely little log cabin, are sheaths of A4 paper with hastily scribbled pages of notes for another series and another series and another series. And one day I might get to develop some of them, I think, possibly not all of them because I seem to develop them faster than I can actually write them. But yeah, I've got an awful lot of different things. And this thing I wrote was Paranormal Nonsense and it came to me almost like an epiphany one day.
There were all these programmes on television like Charmed, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Supernatural, all really cascading over one another with the concept that the supernatural is real and it's all around us and I felt a bit of a strong desire to challenge that with, there's all these people that believe in it and I don't know what your experience is, but I meet people on an almost daily basis, who will talk about the ghost that lives in their closet or their recently deceased grandfather still visits them or things that happen, the light turns on by itself and they blame that on ghosts. So I wrote a character, who would be employed by these people to debunk their mysteries and so came to life that series.
James Blatch: Maybe a little bit Dirk Gently type?
Steve Higgs: I don't know who that is.
James Blatch: Oh, you have to read Dirk Gently at some point, it was Douglas Adams follow up to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He had a holistic detective agency. So, that sort of thing. Anyway, sounds similar. So you wrote that just coming out of the Army.
Steve Higgs: Yeah.
James Blatch: And then what did you do? What was the process?
Steve Higgs: It took me a long time to finish. I hadn't finished it when I left the Army and then it was very much, right, well you need a job now. And go and start a new career and so I was still sort of fiddling with the book and fiddling with the book and I eventually finished it. But it took me five years.
James Blatch: That's quick.
Steve Higgs: Well, possibly, I don't know. But it took me five years, that's how long it took. And then because I simply had no idea what I was doing, I then wasted about another two years trying to get it published.
James Blatch: Traditionally published?
Steve Higgs: Yeah, traditionally published. I was doing all of the synopsis and reading books on how to write that in a particularly dynamic way that would get me and writing letters to agents. And in the end, I think it was the landlady in the public house, that sits at the back of my garden, in a conversation one day, who suggested or questioned possibly, why I didn't publish it myself. So then began this quest to actually do that. And the first copy of that went out on June the 17th of 2017.
James Blatch: How did that sell?
Steve Higgs: It didn't, it didn't at all. And again, I'm living in this vacuum, I don't know any other authors, I don't know how any of this is done, I hadn't found Facebook groups. It hadn't even occurred to me to look on Amazon for books on how to publish your book. So I found, I think more by stumbling across it than anything else, the KDP portal. And uploaded a copy of a book that was filled with errors, that was grammatically terrible, that was a little long winded in places, didn't have particularly good flow.
But it was there and a couple of people read it and said, "Actually this is not bad, but it's just very poorly executed." But in the meantime I started writing what would be the follow-up to that book. And that took me five months and that came out in the December. And suddenly I started to believe that actually, there might be something in this, apart from the fact that I really enjoyed doing what I was doing. So I think it was five years for the first book, five months for the second book and then five in the next months.
James Blatch: Wow, a book a month after that, that's incredible.
Did you get another job, by the way?
Steve Higgs: I'm a qualified mechanical engineer, I've had several jobs. I quit my full-time job on the board of directors of a multimillion pound mezzanine manufacturing company last September.
James Blatch: Wow, so you had a decent salary in the industry, in that industry?
Steve Higgs: Yeah, absolutely. I had what many would consider to be a pretty decent salary. But I was very much wanting to not do it.
James Blatch: Yes, fair enough.
Steve Higgs: In fact, I hated the job with a passion and it got to a head when I couldn't decide whether to put a tuna sandwich in my lunchbox or an axe. And at that point, I decide it was time probably to go.
James Blatch: And your colleagues, who are surviving to this day, are grateful for that decision.
Steve Higgs: Possibly.
James Blatch: You didn't go postal on them, okay.
Steve Higgs: And full berserk.
James Blatch: Yeah, so let's talk about kind of the commercial journey and then I want to talk a bit about the writing because you've just hinted at that five years, five months, and then a book a month. That's a really interesting area for me and I think we can learn from. But we should underline without too many spoilers in this little journey, that you are incredibly successful selling books today.
At what point did you start selling them?
Steve Higgs: About 12 months after the launch of the first book. Having sort of written five books in five months, I then, at that point found a couple of Facebook groups from whom I could glean a few tips and tricks and information and places to, like resources, where I could find information on how to do things. And having done that, I was then able to start trying to advertise, trying to learn the marketing element of putting my books out there with Facebook and Amazon.
It was at that point, when I'm starting to find out about online book sites like BookBub, and Bargain Booksy, and people such as that, that I was able to start finding a little bit of traction. And I think it was May of 2018, so 11 months after the first book went out, and I've got six or seven books out at that point and I made $500 in a month and that was almost a eureka moment, because I'd made nothing. It was $5 here, $10 there up until I think April. And then it was $200 and then 500, and then it was 1,000.
And then I guess at that point I've started to look at it with the success stories I was read other places with authors, who had gone before me and thinking well, there's no reason why you cannot do the same thing.
James Blatch: And those books you had at that point, after the 11 months, was that one series?
Steve Higgs: Yeah, absolutely, that was all Blue Moon and it was just about at that point that I started to think about what else I might write.
James Blatch: Okay, I think that is helpful I think at the beginning, when you've got one series, so your marketing, your blurbs, your covers and so on, are all sort of branded.
Steve Higgs: Pushing book one with a view to read through and suchlike to come.
James Blatch: Yeah, all the stuff you were learning from these various groups.
I hope SPF was in the mix of those groups in those early days.
Steve Higgs: And I'll be honest and say it wasn't. I was aware and I couldn't tell you at what point I became aware of SPF. But I guess it was one of things that was bandied about. It took me a while to discover them and then a little bit longer to decide that it was something that I really needed. But you're operating in a void of information and there's lots of information, there's lots of stones to look under.
So it's trying to be educated enough to know which of those stones you should invest your money in. And that was, I think, what held me back for some time because there's a lot of free to do first. And I think that actually holding off a little while helped me in many ways because by the time I got to SPF, I understood the language enough to learn from them.
James Blatch: Yeah, there's a discussion we had the other day actually with the Self-Publishing Podcast Guys, of course, they're now Sterling and Stone, that there is a culture of language and discussion that you can't learn overnight. You have to be absorbed in it for a while before it seeps in and then becomes your language and that's the point at which I think you can then start being a bit more advanced in this world. I think that's a really good point.
Steve Higgs: Sure, okay. I mean, that's just my experience.
James Blatch: I think it's a good point.
So you made your first 500, then 1,000, and then did it just keep going up? And at the same time, I guess, you're still writing and producing at quite a rate.
Steve Higgs: I was still in full-time employment. So this is 2018, I'm still in full-time employment and I'm working a solid 70 plus hours most weeks, in that job, in that environment. I've got a young child, who's just turned up and that draws on my time, I've got another one now, that drew all my time and it was very much, I took the start and I think having spent a long time and the Army and knowing what my physical limits were, helped enormously because I'd simply stopped sleeping for about two years.
I would get up at 5:00 in the morning and write for two hours before cycling to work. I would get home at 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. And when my wife retired at 10:00, I would write until gone midnight because I needed the hours at the keyboard to get the words down.
It was a continuous cycle of belief in myself and sacrifice to push myself through the barriers, to get the next book done and learning all the while with the marketing and other elements. But it was a difficult road and it was a long time before I saw much more money. So I think I shot up to a couple of thousand dollars, but then stalled for seven or eight months, not really getting anywhere, almost as if I'd created a blockage somewhere in that first series, where people were not reading past it.
I also think it was a lack of knowledge of marketing. And so as I'm trying to study, I'm learning as I go, but I'm also wasting money.
Although, I say wasting money, I've always looked at it as investing money, investing money, much like Edison and his light bulb in working out what not to do. So I was trying to learn all the time with yes, I'm spending money, but I'm learning. I'm constantly on Facebook, I'm constantly on Amazon and I'm getting better at it. The results aren't improving yet, but I had confidence that it would be. And I wasn't spending money I didn't have, at any point. I was only investing either money I could afford to invest or money that I'd received from the previous month. So I had 2,000 in and putting basically most of that back out, to try and overcome all these knowledge barriers.
James Blatch: Do you think your time in the armed forces gave you that discipline that you needed to apply yourself?
Steve Higgs: Yeah, absolutely. No doubt. And that doesn't mean that a person who hasn't been in the Army cannot have the same discipline, but that's where my mine came from. I hadn't watched television, I still haven't watched television in about three years. I don't read books, I go through a cycle of, I'm writing, or I'm working, or I'm in the gym and there isn't an awful lot else, other than play with the children, kiss my wife.
James Blatch: Yes, okay. I won't dwell on that last one. The children is a big factor in most people's lives. People talk about your life being turned upside down and suddenly your priorities change. And I do wonder if that sort of ability in the Army, to spend every day thinking, "How do we adapt? How do we change? How do we manage? How are we going to be good in changing circumstances?" Is really good, actually really good training for having children and that sudden disruption. But really good for changing careers and applying yourself.
Steve Higgs: Well yes. There's no room for sympathy for oneself. That's a big thing. Yes, you've been shot, now get on with it.
James Blatch: Yes. Thank you, Sir. Yeah, a Monty Python sketch and they're all missing their arms and stuff, "It's just a flesh wound." Okay, good. So you carry on writing.
Was it still Blue Moon or have you changed series at this point?
Steve Higgs: No,. Let's see, I put the first Patricia Fisher Mystery out in, I believe and now I'm doing this from memory, May of 2019. But I started writing them at the end of 2018. I had a concept of the series, I wanted to keep pushing out the Blue Moon books because they were doing okay, there was a steady income from them.
But I'd learned enough that of these release strategies and a lot of people talk about having this ability to fast release. So I'd stacked four books. And as those four were coming out, one a month. I then got books five and six being written, while I'm still trying to write the Blue Moons. So it was just trying to cram in more books.
I was able to very slowly capture a small corner of the cozy mystery market and I didn't even know what cozy mystery was, that's a funny thing. I only found out when I'd written the Blue Moons and people were calling it cozy mystery. I'd never heard the term before and that's how green I was in this industry.
James Blatch: And you say captured a small part of it, so I'm assuming at this point your sales did start accelerating.
Steve Higgs: Yeah, so that was May, the first book came out in May of 2019. So second book in June, and in July, suddenly I'm making $5,000. And at 5,000 I'm thinking, "This is almost a lifestyle wage. It certainly is great as a little top up on what I'm earning, for holidays and suchlike." But understanding that I'm really very much one foot on the rung of the bottom of a very tall ladder and nothing stopping me from climbing it, but my own desire and ambition.
I'm looking at $5,000, thinking, "Well actually, I can multiply that. I need more books and I need to be better at what I do. But I can multiply that." So that was July, that was July. I quit my job in September, although I'd actually walked away from it in August and by January of this year, it was accelerating fast. My head was not distracted by a full-time job that was eating up 70ish hours a week and making untold diabolical demands upon me.
James Blatch: Where are you now in terms of income?
Steve Higgs: I've been on the 40,000 mark for, well this would be the fourth month in a row. So I'm just on that cusp and in fact, well I'll give you the rundown for the year. So having quit the job, I was on $5,000 and I think it was then six and six and then eight in the December, 10 in January, 16, 17, 20 and then suddenly, that was 20 in April, in May it was 38 something plus audio book sales, which took me to just on the 40.
The same in June, the same in July and very much a little better than that this month. So it's going to be 41, or 43, or something like that. I mean, that's a very healthy way, once the overhead's taken out of that, that's still over $30,000, it's 25,000 pounds, I'm very happy. And I know that I should be.
James Blatch: So your overhead, your advertising spend, or your overheads, I don't know how much advertising you do, actually we'll talk about that, seems quite relatively small. I mean, I'm almost 50% on the revenue from the books I'm marketing. I think Mark tends to talk about roughly a third, yours sounds like smaller than that, of your income.
Steve Higgs: Okay, so my ad spend currently, is about 8,000 pounds for a 25,000 pound profit, for 40,000, or I said 30, 33,000 pound sale figure. So what's that, 25%?
James Blatch: Yeah, 25%, yeah, that's good.
Steve Higgs: 25%, yeah and that's about right because on my P and L I'm making 400% ROI on all the investments added together. So I'm very happy with that. I'm trying, trying to spend more money. I'm very much, very much, I mean, keenly, how can spend more?
James Blatch: I guess you're talking about Amazon ads here.
Steve Higgs: Well both things. And I don't know who else this happens to, but I will run Facebook ads that they just don't spend.
James Blatch: Oh?
Steve Higgs: Yeah, absolutely. I'll put a Facebook ad on and I'll do four variations and all four will get no impressions and spend my money on a 25 pound budget each ad, if I choose to rate it that high, which I find-
James Blatch: I'll talk to Mark about that because I don't hear that very often because it's impressions based. I mean, certainly my ad spend is almost to the pound, the same every day, however much you offer them, they take generally.
Steve Higgs: Yeah and that is what I've heard from everyone. I don't know how unique that is to me. At the same time I've got plenty of ads that will spend, spend, spend and it's then trying to work out which ones are... I mean, there's a lot of analysis in this, isn't it?
There's a lot of analysis with which ad is actually performing and can I then put more on that? And the scalability of that because you can't take a 10 pound ad that's making 20 pounds in sales and throw 1,000 pounds at and get 2,000, generally is my experience. And very much on Amazon, which we touched on, my spend is tiny.
My ROI is really good, but I just do not seem to be able to get keyword traction. I can put ads up with stacks of keywords, the keyword that performs and drives sales, is my name, almost always, or my characters' names. And going through my also boughts and suchlike and spending hours reaming Amazon, and Listopia, and all these other sites, great sites for keywords, which ought to work, does not seem to get me an awful lot of traction.
I'd happily spend $1,000 a day on advertising and I do not seem, yet, to be able to. But this is again, you have to learn, you have to learn and you have to go back over things. And I'm studying Mark's course for, I think the third time, the Facebook one.
James Blatch: Yeah, going back over it and I see you're in KU, you're in Kindle Unlimited.
Steve Higgs: And that is doing quite well for me, yeah.
James Blatch: Okay, well let's talk about the writing, which I think is probably the key, or one of the main keys to your success is your ability to write books, create series and have products there. And very often people come to us and say, "I'm struggling to make a profit here. I can't get my ads working." And they've got two books or three books, or in my position, haven't got a book out yet and I'll have one book and it'll take me a while, I think, to get the second one out and so on.
I'm so jealous of the people who have that ability to turn out books because it's absolutely crucial to commercial success, isn't it? Also, you're proving that.
Steve Higgs: Well, I'm sure there are many routes to that success. One of them, and I've sort of blogged a few times on a couple of author forums and said, "This is how I've done it." Just out of interest because when I quit the job and went full-time, it was very much, I've just cut my parachute and I have no idea where I'm going to land, so watch if you dare. And then just sort of gave a monthly report on how that was all going.
I talk about grind and quantity a lot because the grind is me sacrificing everything else in my life that I might want to do, like going to the pub for a pint because you can't write once you've had a couple of pints. It just doesn't, for me personally, maybe the other people write their best stuff.
James Blatch: Hemingway did.
Steve Higgs: Yes. Down in the Florida Keys I believe, drunk half the time. But I certainly cannot. So I don't do a lot of things that I otherwise might because I'm in that cycle of grind. And I'll take my foot off the pedal at some point. So there's a lot of grind to get words out, to get the books done, which requires hours. And that leads into quantity because I've said to number of people, it's very difficult for you to be successful with one book, or two books because there's very little for you to push.
But actually, when you've got 10 book box sets that you can almost give away. I just had a big promotion on BookBub this weekend, that has returned me quite a worthwhile amount on my investment. And is continuing to bring me books and I'll get a bump on KU from that, I anticipate, about a week from now, that will probably last a month or more. So small investment, really quite heavy income, but that 10 book set then leads into more books in that series, which having given them 10 books, they're quite invested, they will want to know what happens next, I hope.
James Blatch: And out of interest, was that an international deal with BookBub?
Steve Higgs: It was actually, yeah. The US ones are hard to come by.
James Blatch: When you're in KU, I think they're quite difficult to come by, yeah.
Steve Higgs: I've had a couple of US deals and they are almost a licence to print money.
James Blatch: I think I mentioned it to Mark actually on the podcast last week, I've got a screen grab of a BookBub international deal and there's this bumbling along, there's the spike for the deal and then you see KU going up like that afterwards in the days that follow, which is great and as you say, lasts at least a month and gives you just that little bump of readers and stuff that actually trickles on for quite a long time and gives you something else to build on.
Steve Higgs: Well, that's my third BookBub in four months, which I believe is relatively hard to replicate. Well I don't know, I mean a lot of people talk about, apply, apply, apply and I certainly did, for probably two years before I had my first one. But ever since then, I've done reasonably well. But I've never had a single title pushed by that, only the big box sets, where I can show real value, I think, for their readers.
James Blatch:Let's talk about books a bit more. So looking at your latest books, in fact, the last couple of Patricia Fisher Mysteries, I clicked on are both pre-orders, you got a couple coming out in the future. They look, your readers, predominately female?
Steve Higgs: Predominately octogenarian American female.
James Blatch: Right, so you can narrow it down to that.
Steve Higgs: Yeah, trying to identify that avatar reader, so you push to them. My Facebook ads, I don't advertise to anybody under 50 for that series. The main character is a 53-year-old divorcee. I wrote that very specifically, I say I wrote that very specifically, I didn't. I, soon after I started writing, recognised that I had a very specific audience for that, or by accident.
Again, it's that I write what occurs to my brain to write without really considering what commercially, might come afterwards. I'm learning to think a little bit more about things before I do them. But I'm not writing to market, I'm not doing that and that's probably not very clever.
James Blatch: Well, you've done a lot right, Steve, and there's obviously a natural storyteller in you. And I'm slightly curious that an ex Army British bloke comes out and wants to write. And I look at that cover, and I was surprised. I don't know why, because we live in a world of cliches and stereotyping and I expected you to be sci-fi or you know. But this looks like-
Steve Higgs: Yeah, military something, Chris Ryan.
James Blatch: Yeah, sort of neanderthal stuff that I like. Obviously I love murder mysteries as well. And this looks, I would have said, at a guess, would have been written by a woman as well, which again is probably belying cliches. But 100% exactly in the market for those readers who get through a book a day or those whale readers, as we call them and there's a lot of them out there, so particularly in America, who devour.
I'm sure you get emails from people hammering on your door, saying, "When's the next one? When's the next one?"
Steve Higgs: Yeah, constantly. I'm trying to, and this is one of the reasons I'm writing so fast is, I'm trying to feed four series a month.
James Blatch: Wow, so-
Steve Higgs: And I cannot, but I'm trying to feed four different series a month.
James Blatch: You still worked out where your limitations are.
Steve Higgs: Well, I do actually have to sleep and eat.
James Blatch: Yes, we'll perhaps if you didn't kiss your wife so much, give you some time back.
Steve Higgs: It's once a day, once a day is all.
James Blatch: Okay, I keep trying to get into the writing and we keep getting drawn back to kind of the productivity and so. So let's talk about the writing. So you sat down there, presumably with no formal, writing training. Although, you may have been on some Army.
Steve Higgs: No, I think we can just say no formal writing training. I've never read a craft book, I did creative writing at school. And that's pretty much where it ended, at 16.
James Blatch: And you sat down and you wrote your first book. As you say, when you self published, you hadn't had it edited I don't think. You said it had typos and stuff.
Steve Higgs: I still haven't had any of my books edited, I do it myself. I've taught myself that skill. I don't have a developmental editor. I have a proof reading teams of ARCs, but my first draft is my last draft every single time.
James Blatch: Wow, that's amazing.
Steve Higgs: And I have been called a unicorn a few times because I'm rare in this industry, it would seem. But it's working.
James Blatch: Yeah, really is. You say you've dropped reading, or you're not reading because of time, which is one of those lines that goes around, you can't be a good writer without being a prolific reader.
Did you read a lot before you started writing, when in your Army days?
Steve Higgs: I'm going to say yes, but I guess it depends on one’s baseline for what a lot might be. I certainly have read, but nowhere near as much as many people and have I read a lot of urban fantasy, though I'm writing urban fantasy? The answer's no. I've read some. Have I read cozy mystery because I'm writing cozy mystery? Never.
James Blatch: Never a cozy mystery.
Steve Higgs: Never read a cozy mystery in my life.
James Blatch: And yet you're a significant name now in the world of cozy mystery writing.
Steve Higgs: By absolute accident and I was writing it without really knowing what it was that I was writing, I was writing stories and I envisaged the life of this woman and turned it on its head, gave her a catalyst event that would send her spiralling on this course, where she had to begin solving mysteries to save her own life as much as anything else. And it's gone from there and I just wrote, I mean, I'll regale you very briefly with a story. So I'm still in full-time employment and the lovely lady that worked in reception one day, because I've got half a dozen books published at this point and people know about them.
She asked me how I came up with the characters and I stood in the doorway and demonstrated how brilliant I am, if you like, by creating a character, giving her this life-changing event, sticking her on a boat, and inventing a mystery for her to solve. And that then stewed in my head for six months, until I absolutely had to write it. It was just one of those chance conversations, that caused the, well what is now, I'm just about to start writing book 17 in that series. I can reliably put a book on pre-order and expect 1,000 sales before it's launched. Yeah and I don't really know how I've done that. I write what I think people would like to read.
James Blatch: And that's 17 Patricia Fisher novels, is it?
Steve Higgs: Yeah. Mug Shot, which you've seen there, which is on pre-order, I haven't written a single word yet.
James Blatch: Oh, okay. But you're confident you'll sit down and get that done?
Steve Higgs: Well yeah, absolutely yeah. I think you said there's four books on pre-order. Three of them I haven't started writing.
James Blatch: When you write, what's your routine now that you're not encumbered with this 9:00 to 5:00 job?
Steve Higgs: I roll out of bed at about 05:00, I write for a couple of hours. My eldest child, who is just about to turn five, rolls out of bed, much like an elephant exploding into the room. And that keeps me out of trouble for a couple of hours. And by 9:00 I'm in a little cabin at the bottom of my garden, I'll write until lunch time, I'll through most of the afternoon. I may get involved in other things because my wife needs me to go to shops or needs me to do whatever. And we have a baby girl, who is just about to turn four months this week.
James Blatch: Right, that's a busy time.
Steve Higgs: And so as you can imagine, that's been a draw on time, I was expected to be there for the birth and such.
James Blatch: Strange that.
Steve Higgs: I did try to outsource the conception, but it was no-go. But I will then write generally until midnight, taking a break at 10:00 to lift some weights because I spend my life sitting on my backside, I'm practically morphing into the chair. So I'm trying more or less the right shape. But I am either writing or I'm marketing or I'm doing one of those other tasks I simply have to do.
James Blatch: What are your word counts?
Steve Higgs: Daily, anything between six and 10, occasionally less than that. So my process is, write the book and the book goes to the ARCs and it comes back with a few proof reading bits and every now and then an observation because I've got children being let out of school on a Sunday. I might make that sort of error. But it comes back, I write clean, I don't know how.
It's certainly not a discipline I've taught myself. But by luck, I write cleanly, so I get grammar and typos back, I will spend half a day correcting those, read through the book once more, so that process is a good day. And that's it, finished. And it goes to KDP and is published on whatever day I've chosen to publish it on. So that's the process for the book and I will sit down and write between six and 10,000, probably five or six days a week.
James Blatch: That's so impressive, that dedication and obviously so important to your success.
You're bringing in, what, half a million dollars a year now, plus?
Steve Higgs: It's certainly heading in that direction, yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah, and there's a key to it.
What other series have you got going at the moment? You said you're writing into four series at the moment?
Steve Higgs: I really wanted to expand my urban fantasy thing because if I were picking up a book to read, it would probably be urban fantasy. And I know I don't read, I've got the current Harry Dresden book by Jim Butcher, which is a big bestseller and I've managed four chapters in, I think, three weeks. But I am enjoying it, but I wanted to do more with that and I had a lot of ideas.
So I started writing and again, I stacked the stories and put six books out. One every two weeks, just to see how that would work and that's called The Realm of False Gods. I'll say it's not selling very well, I need to take it apart and see why that is because it's got great reviews, it appears to be much loved by those who do read it.
I think really the issue here is in my marketing side or in the covers, which I think are on point for the genre or in the blurb, which again, I actually got help from a big industry name, to get first couple of book blurbs right and have to trust that they probably are more or less right. But generally it's not selling.
And I say it's not selling, it's still selling better than the Blue Moon series did in the first two years. But it's not selling in any way near the numbers that my other series are selling now.
And the remaining that we haven't talked about, is a series called Albert Smith's Culinary Capers.
James Blatch: Yeah, I was just looking at that. Again, quite a genre.
Steve Higgs: Here's the thing about writing to market. I wanted to write another cozy mystery series because the cozy mystery series I had was becoming quite mature and I believed that readers would be keen to see something else. And I'd established a presence in the cozy mystery genre. I regularly got books in the top 50 in amazon.com in those sort of cozy categories. So I wanted to put something else out there and looked at what else I had.
And this story of a man and a dog was something that came from reading a copy of National Geographic, something like 25 years ago. And it had just stuck in my head, and so I wanted to develop that into a series of mystery stories, loosely based on what I'd read with this chap and his dog. But then took a pause and looked at the culinary cozy mystery market. And sat and wrote out the tropes, I looked at a number of books.
I read extracts of books because you can generally download the first sort of 5% or whatever. And what I needed to write in order to be writing to market, was a young middle aged woman, recently divorced or widowed, moving town to somewhere new and opening a cake shop. And there's a few other bits on top of that.
So I didn't do that. I picked a 78-year-old retired detective superintendent, who'd been widowed for 12 months and couldn't cook. And decided he was going to take a tour of the UK, while sampling and learning how to cook some of his favourite dishes, like Melton Mowbray pork pie, and Bakewell tart, and such. So in each new venue, he uncovers a mystery. And they're funny. I think that's the underlying thing that's selling them. The dog in it, who appears quite magnificently on the cover, is called Rex Harrison-
James Blatch: Oh brilliant, yeah.
Steve Higgs: He's a former police dog and the only dog in the history of the Metropolitan Police to be fired for having a bad attitude.
James Blatch: Brilliant.
Steve Higgs: And he just provides a lot of fun, he's able to solve the case by page 50 because he can smell the clues and despairs at the humans' inability to use their most powerful sense.
James Blatch: When we read the book, are we in the dog's mind and the human's mind, but the human doesn't know what the dog's thinking?
Steve Higgs: The human tries to translate what the dog is thinking because the dog trying desperately to get his message across. Apparently it's third omniscient. I didn't know what that was until I wrote a short for a charity anthology recently. I was invited to by an author friend, I guess, I've only met a very authors, but I was invited to write this. And she remarked on how well I'd written third omniscient and I had to then ask her what on earth that was. Now that person, that lady, is a writer, who's been a writer her entire life and has written screen plays and film scripts and been in sort of that Hollywood environment. She's a proper writer. So third omniscient, I didn't know what it was.
James Blatch: Yeah, there you go, but you were good at it.
Steve Higgs: But I'm in the head of multiple characters apparently, that's what it is. You're in the head of multiple characters, viewing things from their perspective and so the dog gets a voice and the old man gets a voice and the bad guy, laughing vaudevillian style, gets a voice too. But so yeah, they are outselling anything I've written by quite a margin.
James Blatch: Wow.
Steve Higgs: And is that the cover? Is that just that I'm getting better at writing? I don't know what that is. So there's three books out there. The Realm of False Gods, which have been out probably six or seven months now, I've made about $10,000 off of that. Those three books have made 10,000 in a number of weeks.
James Blatch: That's amazing. I notice in one of them you've been to Stilton, which is just a couple of miles away from where I am now.
Steve Higgs: Right, yeah, like I say, he's on a tour of the British Isles. He has enormous fun and all the cheese get stolen.
James Blatch: Excellent. I almost don't know what to say, you're an outlier I think, in so many areas here. Yeah, not reading books is-
Steve Higgs: Not doing anything, not doing anything right. And I don't plot.
James Blatch: And you don't plot. Yeah, you just sit there and write.
Steve Higgs: Honestly, I had a wonderful conversation with a developmental editor, who's an author now. But he's done, that's his background, about a number of things he and I write urban fantasy, it's quite close to each other. I guess he's followed me, but we have been in conversation much like you and I now are, over the airwaves. And he asked me about my plotting process and I don't even have a piece of A4.
The concepts are in my head and apparently it's really unusual. But I don't generally don't know who the killer is when I'm halfway through the book. I don't know how the book's going to end. The characters lead me through. Often, I've said, on the few occasions where I've set out and I do know, in my head, who the bad guys is going to be, he'll then change halfway through because he says, "Well, no, that's not my character."
James Blatch: That's great and you have that in common at least with people on Marie Force, who also sits down and writes and is as excited as the readers to know how this is going to go.
Steve Higgs: Super, I'm glad I'm not completely alone.
James Blatch: She's successful as well, so that's gift. But it's been really, really interesting talking to you, Steve. I'm fascinated to see how this goes. You've got a real knack for it. You've obviously, you've got a combination, I think, of that Army discussion, arms forces discipline, actually quite prevalent in our community, both in America and in the UK. Former services people who apply themselves in a, structure sounds a bit boring, but they apply themselves, rather leave it at that.
But you've also got this gift for storytelling, which is obviously always been there, always been there. I can imagine on some of those boring moments in your Army career, making up stories in your mind and that, in the end, got the better of you and has led to this outpouring, which is fantastic.
Steve Higgs: Sure, something like that.
James Blatch: Thank you so much indeed for joining us. Hopefully we'll see each other in person at one point when all this nonsense is over and-
Steve Higgs: That'd be good.
James Blatch: And we can toast your success. So yeah, brilliant, so great to hear.
Steve Higgs: I hope you get your book out there. I know you've been talking about it for a while.
James Blatch: I will, it's a RAF I'm afraid, not Army, so I'm sure the... The Crabs, is that what you call the RAF?
Steve Higgs: No, we just don't think about them.
James Blatch: You just don't even, they're not even worthy of a name.
Steve Higgs: Same as Boy Scouts.
James Blatch: Yeah, staying in their four star hotel. I have to say, the couple of times I covered the, it makes people laugh. I had a friend in the Kosovo engagement, she may have been involved, I don't know. But my friend ended up on a convoy through Albania to deliver aid and it was the most grim experience for him. I mean, there were no toilets, they just drove for days. They got hospitality where they could. I was covering the Royal Air Force's air offensive, which was from a four star hotel in Gioia del Colle in Southern Italy. Where we had mozzarella with the pilots, mozzarella every night, then they flew during the day. And I thought, "Wow, who's the stupid one here?"
Steve Higgs: My brother was in the RAF and he did belittle me on a regular basis, as I'm stitching my wounds closed, shall we say.
James Blatch: Yeah and he's wondering whether to use the spa that night.
Steve Higgs: Yeah, which knife is it I use first?
James Blatch: Exactly. I did enjoy that banter. Great, Steve, thank you so much indeed for joining. And yeah, well done.
Steve Higgs: No problem, thank you very much.
James Blatch: There you go. So yes, Sir, working a bit like me, in a shed, in his garden. Incredibly dedicated, he's a hard worker and I suppose as my parents used to say to me, Mark, there was no substitute for hard work when you want to achieve something.
Mark Dawson: No and we've said it before, the thing, you've interviewed lots of people now and we've talked to thousands of people and the thing that you see in the most successful authors, I think is, let's assume a decent level of writing ability.
The thing that separates those people into those who are going to be successful, tends to be just determination, hard work, not giving up at set backs, just pushing on and working through each problem as it arises. And Steve's clearly got that background from his Army days and his deploying it, pun intended, in his new career now and doing really well. So good for him.
James Blatch: Yeah, fantastic. Good, okay. We have lots of interviews coming onto the podcast the next few weeks. I've been very busy, I've got two more to do this evening, actually. We're going to be talking about how to work with a coach, a book coach or a development editor, that first draft stage, among other things.
And I should obviously say that we're always open to suggestions for guests. We're pretty full at the moment, but if you are desperate to hear somebody, you can just drop us a line, [email protected]. Right, I need my beauty sleep after those interviews tonight, if I'm going to look at my best for Mandy Hickson tomorrow. She's quaking, if she's been listening in advance to these podcasts, she's now going to be nervous and-
Mark Dawson: With reason.
James Blatch: Yeah and we should say also, we had a great reaction to Marie Force's interview last week. I know lots of people like that. So if you want to go back one week for that great interview with Marie, who is the queen of indie, I think. I'm going to crown her, even though she's an insurgent American.
Mark Dawson: She certainly, yeah, well she's the Mrs Simpson.
James Blatch: She's Mrs Simpson, yes. Yes, Wallis Simpson, not Marge. Okay, great. Thank you very much indeed. All that remains for me to say, is that it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And it's a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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