SPS-245: From Scripts to Snowdonia: Self-Published Success – with Simon McCleave
After years of writing for television, Simon McCleave has found success with his police procedural series set in Snowdonia, Wales. He gives his readers what they want and, after launching his first book in early 2020, has already sold nearly a quarter million books.
- Starting out in writing by reading scripts
- How writing for the screen differs from writing for the page
- Simon’s launch strategy for his first 3 books
- The importance of structure in a novel
- Writing in bursts throughout the day
- The value in giving readers what they want
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
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SPS-245: From Scripts to Snowdonia: Self-Published Success - with Simon McCleave
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
Simon McCleave: I got 65,000 downloads, which was incredible because ... I mean obviously I didn't know how much that would convert because it was free. But I did kind of go, well something's going right here. There were then 65,000 copies of book one out there, and at the end of that I put it up to 99 pence, and it carried on selling.
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 on a Friday. Your weekly dose of indie inspiration and knowledge. My name is James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: My name's Mark Dawson. Hello.
James Blatch: Hello. Before we do anything else, I want to welcome our Patreon supporters, people who support the show, help it go on. Because the show must go on. This week we want to say a big shout out to Michael Alan Peck, Timothy Sparks, Barry Carter from Derby here in the UK, and Mo Akof from FL, USA. Welcome, thank you very much indeed.
They all went to Patreon or patreon.com/selfpublishingshow, got themselves some goodies in the process of supporting the show. Thank you very much, it means a lot to us.
Before we go on, we want to mention one of our early guests here on the Self-Publishing Show. It was back then it was Self-Publishing Formula Podcast. Episode number 62, April 2017, was TS Paul. Came to our attention because he suddenly came from nowhere, writing quite short stories that weren't always best formatted ... some had typos in them, and was absolutely killing it with an adoring fan base right from the get go. A lovely man to chat to.
We got to know TS Paul, Scott Paul, as we got to know him at various conferences, particularly this time of year actually, at NINC in Florida. And I'm very sorry to tell you that Scott passed away last week. Our sympathies go to Heather, his wife. He was a character in our industry, no question about that. All took it a bit by surprise when he first got going, and this is a little bit of the chat we had at the time.
TS Paul: I wrote the first eight books sitting in the living room chair on a tray table.
James Blatch: Okay.
TS Paul: With my computer in front of me. Now I have a real actual physical desk. But before I just didn't have anything. And so I've got my own little office now. It's nice and quiet, nobody's in here. Except for the cat. So it's been a real challenge. I had never written before. I was suddenly thrust into this, and then all of a sudden people are like, "Hey, when's the next book?" And I'm like, "Uhhh."
James Blatch: I'd better write that.
There you go. As you can tell, infectious laugh. Lovely man. Very sorry to hear that news. And I remember, Mark, at the time, thinking that this was a great example of why that gatekeeping system that we had in the past wasn't as good as people thought it was in the industry. Because TS Paul wouldn't have got through it. I can't see any way he would have got through it. He would have been shut down, knocked down several times. And his first books, yes, I read The Forgotten Engineer, one of his first books. It's an absolute page turner. The man has a gift for writing.
And it was a tough write actually. This woman was on her own in a space station. There's no other characters to bounce off, it was all in her mind. Really tough write, but really absorbing. You wanted to know what happened next, which is the classic thing about stories. And yes, he's gone back and he's corrected the typos and the formatting and made everything better, but the idea that everything that followed that, those books which readers loved, the paranormal stuff that followed, a huge canon that he came up with. All of that would not have been there under the old system of you're not quite up to scratch, go back to your day job, is a great example of how this indie revolution is brilliant.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, he was. Michael Anderle and Scott knew each other quite well, and I think Scott may have been one of the first admins on 20Books as well. I remember at the time some people were basically railing against the fact that they were putting books out that didn't have the same kind of editing polish as others do.
And it's never been something that I do. I'm always very keen and make a special effort to make sure my books are as polished as a traditionally published book would be. But that doesn't mean that my way is the only way or the right way. There are lots of different ways to do it.
My view has always been that it is all about giving readers what they want, and it's very clear that Scott's audience loved what he wrote and the stories that he told. At the end of the day, who cares? That's the most important thing. They're actually buying those books, enjoying them, buying more. So it's not for me or for anyone really to tell an author what they should or shouldn't do.
My view, and I think I probably told Scott this when we chatted, was that I personally would always want to invest in the product, make it as slick and professional as possible, but he is proof that that's not the only way to do it. So yeah, lovely guy.
Also I remember he had a custom decorated van that he drove to Florida and he showed me ... it was parked outside the Trade Winds Hotel with his characters on the sides and on the back. It was very striking and he was very proud of that. And I think he was telling me that he'd actually sold books because people had seen his artwork on the side of this van, and had then gone to Amazon and bought it. So interesting guerrilla marketing. But lovely guy and sadly missed.
James Blatch: Yes, he will be, he will be missed. When we do finally get back to those conferences, and his readers are certainly going to miss him. I notice that his wife, Heather, said that she's found a few short stories, stuff he was working on, she's going to make sure they're finished, completed, and she will certainly keep his publishing empire going. And it was an empire. Is an empire. So yeah Scott Paul.
We should say that the Self Publishing Formula 101 course, Mark Dawson Self Publishing 101, I should get the title right, is open. This is a foundation course for SPF. The idea right at the beginning, Mark, was you said when you've written "The end" on the manuscript, we don't do craft, don't tell you how to write the book. We have other courses, this course is not that. This takes that manuscript, and you follow the course to build the foundation, the platform you need to sell it. That's the idea of the course.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. What we originally did was we did the ads course, Ads for Authors, or Facebook Ads for Authors as it was in the early days, and that wasn't the original plan. My original plan was to put together a comprehensive course that covered everything. And as I've mentioned on the podcast before, as I realised how big that was and that I had no experience in this kind of thing, I just didn't have the confidence to put that together.
So we peeled off the Facebook advertising, which was the thing I was best known for back then, and it was the easiest thing for us to do in its own course. Course that turned out to be quite a large course by itself.
And it was only when we circled back the Facebook Ads for Authors course had done well, and we thought, okay well let's see if we can tackle the bigger subject. And I went back to it.
The intention has always been that 101 is the launchpad. So I don't know much about Cape Canaveral, but I'm sure that there's lots of things that you need to have in place in order to launch the rocket so they don't crash and blow up and all that kind of stuff.
James Blatch: You are technically adept.
Mark Dawson: Yes. That was the plan that we had, that 101 will teach you how to build your foundations, because you're not going to be able to build a career if your foundations are not strong enough.
And then the next course, the Ads for Authors course, works in tandem with that. So that's the rocket fuel. 101 is the launchpad. And when they're put together, that should be enough to take you from just getting started and hopefully selling more books.
101, it's a really good course, and I'm very proud of it now. It's really comprehensive. It's everything you need from, as you say writing "The end" to getting your book on all the platforms, and starting to sell some books, so building your mailing list, landing pages, websites, covers. A little bit of advertising in there as well. I think it's over 30 hours worth of content, so it is something that we're pretty proud of, and it's done really well.
Students who've taken it have ... not everyone of course, but most people are I think glad that they've taken it, and our refund rate is pretty low, which is always a good indication that we're doing something right.
James Blatch: Yes, indeed. And you can find out everything you need to know about the course at selfpublishingformula.com/101.
I was really hoping you were going to keep the rocket analogy going a bit longer, I was thinking 101 is Kennedy, as you called it Cape Canaveral, it's actually the Air Force Base Cape Canaveral now, as everyone knows. But the Kennedy Space Centre where the vehicle's launched. And once it clears the tower, that's the end of 101, and then mission control in Houston at the Johnson Manned Space Centre, that takes over, that's Ads for Authors after that.
Mark Dawson: God, you're boring.
James Blatch: I'll find something for the translunar injection, TLI, at some point.
Okay, right. One final thing just to mention which came up in our group last night, and you sort of alluded to it there, that not everyone who takes the 101 course is going to go on to become a millionaire. Some might just break even. Some might just make pin money. Some might find it's not working for them. We do know that it's a very helpful course for people who have the right product.
Someone posted in the group saying that they don't really want to continually hear how successful other authors have been, because they found it annoying.
Mark Dawson: I did say last night that I was going to post something in that thread today, because it was an interesting thread. I'm afraid I don't remember, I don't have my browser open at the moment, so I don't know who it was who posted that, but it was, "I don't like looking at the groups where authors will tell people about their great months and how much money they've made."
And then lots of other authors chimed in. It was quite a supportive thread actually, with people echoing that sentiment. Marie Force popped up and made a comment about just keep writing, that's the most important thing. You're in the game. You wouldn't be in the game if it wasn't for being able to publish yourself.
I was going to post something about my thoughts, because it got me thinking as well. And then I thought, well actually it might be better, this could be a good subject for a podcast chat between me and you. So maybe we'll do that next week, because I do have some thoughts about that, about success and comparisonitis. I do understand why people feel that way.
I'm not doing income reports this year. I haven't done since about December, and that's one of the reasons why. It's quite a tricky one. Perhaps we'll talk about it a bit more when we do the podcast. But it's a tricky balance between wanting to celebrate it, I suppose, and to show what's possible, and also as someone who's selling courses, like the 101 course, it's important that potential students know that I know what I'm talking about. Because there are lots of other courses now, more all the time, and some of those tutors, if you look at their sales, they aren't selling anything. So you have to question why would you want to learn from someone who isn't doing it?
So that was one of the ways that I try to give people confidence. I can teach them, I know what I'm talking about. But on the other hand, I am aware that that some people will look at that and they won't feel good about it. So I stopped. I think it could be quite a good chat to think about as we, as authors, are starting out.
James Blatch: Mindset and motivation and expectations and so on.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay. Let's schedule that in, maybe for next week or the week after. That would be a good chat. And of course if you're not in our community Facebook group, it is a good place for these kind of stimulating discussions you'll find it on Facebook.
Yes, I'm being bombarded at the moment, because I clicked on one guy who's selling an Amazon ads course at the moment, and he looks like a snake oil salesman. I won't mention his name just because I can't be bothered if he gets back to me legally. But he looks like a snake oil salesman. He's pushing this Amazon ads course. And I had a look on Amazon. He's got three books on Amazon, and they are all ranked at 1.7 million mark, sort of 1.5-
Mark Dawson: That's all you need to know.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's everything you need to know about this guy. And he does use the words guaranteed, and he talks about $100,000 a month income. And he talks about it being guaranteed.
Mark Dawson: One of these days someone is going to be sued by someone, because that's all kinds of wrong. Courses aren't cheap sometimes, and people are being ripped off. We see it all the time.
James Blatch: And I think this guy sells his course at $97, and I think that's probably how he thinks he gets away with it, that people just think oh it's only-
Mark Dawson: Still a hundred dollars.
James Blatch: It's still a hundred. But it's only 97, so I'm not going to make that big a fuss. But I get the feeling he's somebody who may have worked out how to reinvent himself and move away from the court cases he's done. Anyway let's park him there. There's a few of them around.
Mark Dawson: Tell me off air, I'll check him out.
James Blatch: Yeah, yeah. Okay, look, we have somebody who's been very successful on the podcast today. Of course we are generally drawn to people who have been successful in this area. That's what we're doing here, exploring how and why. This guy's from England, he's from South London. Now lives in Snowdonia, which is a beautiful part of Wales. And he has created a character, really based on his own move from South London to Snowdonia, policeman who thought maybe he's going to get a nice quiet life. Turns out of course there's been a murder in the village. They're sort of, I guess, police procedural stroke cosy murder type area.
Anyway, he's been enormously successful. He's a great writer, and his name is Simon McCleave.
Simon McCleave, thank you so much indeed for being on the Self Publishing Show. A fellow BBC survivor.
Simon McCleave: I am, yes. Back from the 90's, yeah. In the good old days.
James Blatch: My name is James and I've been free of the BBC since-
Simon McCleave: Yes, exactly,
James Blatch: 2006. It's a large organisation. I was in the grotty news end of things, and I was always jealous about the people who made proper programmes that I went home and watched in the evening. And that's the sort of thing that you were doing.
You'd better give us a little bit of your background, Simon.
Simon McCleave: I started working in script development way back in the mid 90s, early 90s. I worked as a script editor on various BBC shows, developed a lot of stuff, worked with a lot of writers. Basically my job was to go and find the writers that I liked and find project I liked, and try and put the two together, or work on a series. So I worked on various series within the BBC.
It was great. It was a good time. I was young, so it was all part of the fun was being in that place and working in the media.
James Blatch: And how do you get into being a script editor and being in that position as somebody so young? Had you done much writing to that point?
Simon McCleave: No. Basically what happens is first of all you become a script reader.
James Blatch: Okay.
Simon McCleave: So I sort of touted myself round and banged on doors and begged people to give me some feature film scripts to read. So I started by working for Miramax actually, right back. And films and people like that. They would pay me a pittance to go away and read a feature film script, write a synopsis, and come back and say whether I thought it was half decent. And for some reason they trusted me to do that. And that led to more opportunities so that eventually I got into the BBC for a while.
James Blatch: Did you get to the point of writing scripts in the BBC?
Simon McCleave: Yeah. Well then I went freelance, so then I decided right, well I think I can do this, I can probably do this better than some of the people I'm working with. Which is highly arrogant, but I thought I'd give it a go. For a while I did a lot of work for The Bill, the good old Bill. And I wrote for Silent Witness and Eastenders and Holby, I mean loads of other kind of stuff.
It was good. It was good while it lasted. It's a difficult thing, because it's such a factory, and you are given what's going to happen in your episode. You're told the beats that you have to hit.
James Blatch: Right.
Simon McCleave: You had a very prescriptive script editor and producer, so it's very tightly reigned. So there's not a huge scope for creativity there.
James Blatch: You're almost filling in the blanks and somebody else has already worked out how the episode's going to flow.
Simon McCleave: Exactly. You are, you're kind of filling in the blanks with a bit of dialogue. And it's very brutal as well, so they're quite happy to ring up and say, "That's rubbish what you've done, and we'll move on and get someone else to do it." As a writer, certainly in the TV world on those series, you are bottom of the pile.
And at the same time, I was trying to get away feature films or original TV series ideas. But they're so difficult. There's so much money you need just to get the ball rolling. So you get a few rolling, and then it nearly comes off. But that's the only way to really be truly creative.
Then I'd had enough. It got to the point actually when a Bill was going out and I wasn't watching it because I'd had such a terrible time on it.
James Blatch: Right.
Simon McCleave: And my wife went, "Well if you're not even watching the stuff you're writing going out, do you not think you should go and do something else that you want to do?" So I did a decade as a teacher.
James Blatch: It's what we'd call today a toxic environment that you were working in.
Simon McCleave: Yeah. It's unforgiving, it's brutal, and yeah, no it's very, very different actually to how I've found the book world. It's been completely worlds apart.
James Blatch: So you go off and you teach. What ages were you teaching?
Simon McCleave: Secondary school, teaching English and media. Which is an amazing job. It is a fantastically rewarding job, but it's exhausting. So while I was there, I think I dusted myself down, had a few years of not thinking about writing at all, and then in the last few years people started to say, "Why are you not writing? Why have you never, you know, written a book or you should just start to write again." And I just started to kind of think of ideas and suddenly got the bug again, and got that mojo back where I actually thought, maybe I'll give this a go.
James Blatch: Was that novels you were thinking about at that stage?
Simon McCleave: Yeah, I had an idea for a crime story. And I think because of the experience of writing, trying to get a TV series away or trying to get a feature film away, I thought I'm going to write the book that I want to write. I'm going to write the story that I want to write without anyone being prescriptive about it, and I'll see what happens. And I suppose I spent a good two years messing around with that. But I just enjoyed the process, because I was in charge.
I also thought that possibly it was easier to get a novel away, or at least get it into the hands of other people to read than it would be to get a TV series or a feature film developed. So it was that sort of choice. And I love reading, so it kind of fitted in with that.
James Blatch: You're the perfect example of what we celebrate now, is the loss of gatekeepers and agents and people in your way. The complete control, which in contrast to the prescriptive days of working on those serial dramas, must have been a refreshing experience.
Simon McCleave: Oh it's incredible the amount of freedom I have. The other thing I've enjoyed actually about writing novels, which differs from the scripts, is you can write the internal dialogue. So with scripts it's all about what you don't write. It's all about nuance, and why I've really enjoyed writing the books so far is to be able to explore what someone thinks when they say one thing they mean something else, or driving along they're thinking about something completely different.
In terms of character development, I've found that really rewarding. So it's been really, really good, yeah.
James Blatch: You mean we didn't need all that internal dialogue in Blade Runner, did we?
Simon McCleave: No.
James Blatch: As it turned out.
James Blatch: Okay, so let's talk about the books then. You said you spent two years tinkering about with this one idea at the beginning.
Simon McCleave: Yeah. I tinkered around with it for about two years, just thought ... got a couple of people to read it and some people ... my mum is my target audience basically. So good old mum read it and went, "Well that's similar to all the stuff that I read." I gave it to someone else who likes crime novels, they went, "Yeah, I can't really see the difference between that and the stuff that I'm reading at the moment." And I kind of thought, well they're biassed and they're bound to say that whatever. But I thought that was a good sign. At least they didn't say, "Don't bother and go back and carry on teaching."
James Blatch: Yeah.
Simon McCleave: Because I still had some contacts, I did approach a couple of agents. Not in any sort of meaningful way, but just a couple, and it was sort of, "Stay in touch, but not at the moment." And then I happened to come across an article about Mark Dawson, and I suddenly sort of thought, started listening to your podcast, and went, "Oh my god, there's a way of actually producing this without having to go through, get an agent, wait for six months."
I know from working on the other side that the publishing business is so slow. By the time you've handed your first draft in, you're lucky if it's out the same year.
James Blatch: It can be a couple of years, can't it?
Simon McCleave: Yeah. So this idea of writing what you want, having complete and utter artistic control over the content, was my dream. And obviously I had no idea whether anyone would buy it, but it was very exciting just to start the ball rolling really.
James Blatch: Tell us about the book. That first one.
Simon McCleave: I'm a South Londoner. And my wife's from North Wales near Snowdonia. We moved up here about 14 years ago. And I quite enjoyed that experience of being from big city, 38 years in South London, and then coming to a place which is very tiny, everyone knows everyone's business. And I always thought there was a mine in there for stories generally, because the quirks of the Welsh culture as opposed to being from London and all that kind of ... the small town, small village kind of mentality.
But I thought, well there's something there. And I just thought about a police officer deciding that South London is way too dangerous at the moment and thinking, right well, I'll go and I'll see out my pension in North Wales in the North Wales police force.
So that's my character, Ruth Hunter. She's a DI in Peckham, which is a really frightening place to be any kind of police officer. And she decides to up sticks. She's had various kind of personal traumas. So she decides to go to Snowdonia, and obviously it doesn't quite work out quite as quietly, otherwise I wouldn't have a series to write.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Simon McCleave: She's literally unpacking her bags when the call comes through. There's been a murder at a school. Teacher's been killed in a car park. And she races off to basically be in charge, because she's so experienced, she's from the Met. She's instantly in charge of the investigation, which is so not what she wanted to do.
Her partner is Nick Evans, DS Nick Evans, who's a fiercely proud Welshman, doesn't like Englishmen, doesn't talk about his feelings, loves rugby. And they are chalk and cheese.
In the first book, first couple of books, they start to warm to each other. I'm writing book seven at the moment. Now they are best buddies. Somehow their relationship and their partnership works. That's the first book.
James Blatch: Sounds like a great landscape for a, I guess a regional detective series, to quote Alan Partridge. That's was one of his pitches, wasn't it? Swallow.
Simon McCleave: Yeah exactly. I mean the thing was I also, with my TV head on, I looked around and thought of all the TV series and crime novel series that we've had, and sort of thought I don't think anyone's done anything based in Snowdonia, which seems crazy because it's so perfect. It's staggeringly beautiful. It's close to places like Liverpool and Manchester on one side, you've got the coast on the other side, and you've got the mountains.
I just thought, thinking of kind of Nordic noir and all that or Celtic noir, and thought, this has to be a great place to set a TV series, a detective series. So that was another thought in my head as I started to write.
James Blatch: How did you go about marketing and launching book one?
Simon McCleave: I listened to the podcast. I gave myself 12 months to gen up on it. I had the book ready, and then I had a second book ready. So I actually waited for the two books to be completed and started working on the third. I then pretty much immersed myself in SPF podcasts. I did the two courses, the 101 and the Ads. I read every book by Jo Penn and David Gaughran. All those guys. I mean literally as though I was doing a degree in self publishing.
When I started I had a fair amount of knowledge, I wasn't finding my way through it. The first thing I did was offer four chapters free to join my mailing list, so I built a mailing list that way. I didn't want to do a novella, but realised that was the best way. So I built a mailing list, got about 2, 3,000 on that. Built some ads.
The other thing is that I looked at what everyone else was doing. Stuart did my covers, Stuart Bache. Bryan Cohen ... I followed everything I was told would be the best thing to do.
James Blatch: Just to jump back a second. You said you got 2 to 3,000 on your mailing list using chapters as a giveaway?
Simon McCleave: Yeah, I basically said, "Here, have the first four chapters for free and get a free ..." and basically I was going to do a freebie. "And get a free copy of this in January."
James Blatch: Right.
Simon McCleave: So the idea was that you can have four chapters now, but obviously you're going to get this book in free. And it worked, and I did some lead gen ads on Facebook. Didn't spent a huge amount. But it seemed to work. And I think the cover ... the other thing is that the cover is superb, and Stuart Bache did an amazing job on that. And I think that really, really helped.
James Blatch: Yeah. It's incredibly important. Did you have a tagline for the book?
Simon McCleave: I can't remember off the top of my head,
James Blatch: But anyway, comes to launch. You said January is when you launched it?
Simon McCleave: Yeah.
James Blatch: And how did that go?
Simon McCleave: I got 65,000 downloads.
James Blatch: Wow.
Simon McCleave: Which was incredible, because obviously I didn't know how much that would convert, because it was free. But I did kind of go, "Well something's going right here." I remember getting six and a half thousand in one day and thinking, what on earth is happening? Because there was part of me that just fully expected this to be a hobby and for me to be still teaching, and for me to be selling a hundred books a month. It could have gone like that. I had absolutely no idea.
Obviously there were then 65,000 copies of book one out there, and at the end of that I put it up to 99 pence, and it carried on selling.
James Blatch: How long was it free for?
Simon McCleave: The first month, so January.
James Blatch: Okay. So for January. Then it goes to 99p.
Simon McCleave: Yeah.
James Blatch: And what was your schedule for releasing book two?
Simon McCleave: That came in two weeks later. Mid February. So I did four weeks free, two weeks, and then book two came out at 99 pence mid February, and that again started to sell really well on the back of book one. They both started selling really well.
James Blatch: So both books were at 99p in February then?
Simon McCleave: Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay. And it did sell. Because obviously that's the test really, how book two sells.
Simon McCleave: Yeah. It went through the roof. And I was looking at it thinking, this must be wrong, I don't understand what's going on. I spoke to a couple of authors in my genre actually and wondered whether about putting up to 1.99. So end of February I put them both up to 1.99 and didn't really see a massive drop. Not a huge drop. A little drop. But then the profit made up for it. And book three by that point was ready to go, so mid March. So I'd released three books in the space of ten weeks.
James Blatch: Wow, okay.
Simon McCleave: And then again, that built on that, and that went through the roof as well.
James Blatch: And what year was this?
Simon McCleave: This year.
James Blatch: This year? You've done this all in 2020. And now you're at book seven.
Simon McCleave: Yeah. Book six comes out in ten days, and then book seven sort of October, November time.
James Blatch: And can you give us an idea of how you're doing on sales now?
Simon McCleave: To date, I've sold 125,000 copies of ebooks and paperbacks across the board, and probably the same in KU.
James Blatch: Fantastic.
Simon McCleave: I think that's knocking on the door of quarter of a million, which is ludicrous. I don't know how that's happened.
James Blatch: This is a fully fledged career for you now?
Simon McCleave: Yeah. No more teaching for me for a while at least.
James Blatch: What I think is interesting about this strategy, first of all you've taken on board all this knowledge, you've worked out, you've taken on faith that this is a good way of doing things. And then you've made decisions to give your book away, which is a mental hurdle that some people never get over and never get through.
Secondly, to price your books at 99p where you're basically making about 60p whatever on them, which is another mental hurdle people don't do. Both books, not just book one, book two.
And the result of all of this has been a fantastic foundation of readership for you, which is obviously paying massive dividends now.
Simon McCleave: I think obviously I have confidence that someone reads book one, they're going to want to read book two and so on. That model doesn't work at all if those books don't lead you to the next book, and so far they have.
And the other thing is, for me it was a bit of a no brainer. If you get 65,000 people reading your book, you only need 10% of them to, or even 5% of them to actually go on to buy book two. And suddenly you're ranking in the Amazon charts. It seemed obvious to me that that's what other people had done and they'd made a success of it, so why not follow that model?
James Blatch: Yeah. Well done for doing that. So let's talk about your writing process. You're obviously quite fast, quite prolific and fast.
Simon McCleave: Two, three thousand words a day.
James Blatch: Do you plot?
Simon McCleave: I always know the ending, so for me my books work, I think, because there's always a moment where everyone goes, "Oh my god, no! What the hell? How can that possibly be?" That sort of moment where you're completely thrown by a twist. So I start with that.
James Blatch: That's what Peter James said to us when we interviewed him in New York. He said, "Every book has to have a fuck me moment."
Simon McCleave: Exactly, the fuck me moment. So basically I start with that, and go, Right, what is the fuck me moment at the end of this book where everyone just goes, "Oh my God, I didn't see that coming." And then work backwards, tracing it back and going right, how do I cover that? How do I make sure that no one at the beginning or middle or end spots that coming?
James Blatch: And there's a real art to that, isn't there? Because you know what's coming, and it's the temptation to do a little bit of foreshadowing here and there, but there's a balance I guess.
Do you end up writing and then scrubbing sentences out thinking, no that's giving too much away?
Simon McCleave: Yeah. That balance between the slightest hint, but readers are so savvy these days. They sit there looking for the least obvious option for the killer, and then they're looking for the tiniest clue that gives that away. But when what you can't do is have it so out of the blue that everyone goes, "Well, that's ridiculous."
James Blatch: Makes no sense.
Simon McCleave: "The postman who we haven't seen since you know, three days ago." It's a balancing act, and I suppose you just play around with it.
Also it's instinctive I think, for me anyway, it's instinctive. As you're writing your instinct tells you when to reign back and when you can kind of open up a bit.
James Blatch: And how much help was that toxic environment that you were in all those years ago? How much help has, in terms of a foundation as a writer, is that to you?
Simon McCleave: Definitely in terms of work ethic and just pumping out work, and believing that what I'm writing is okay, I suppose.
The other thing is structure. I know the three act structure. Turning points, midpoints, climaxes, all that stuff is kind of second nature. So as I'm writing I know when I need to shift a gear or completely throw everything around so that the middle act starts. So that's invaluable, and that's almost part of my DNA I suppose now, because I've been doing it for so long.
And the way that scenes work as well. Yes, it's the idea that if this scene doesn't move the plot or character on, it's not in there, that scene's not in the book. So that stuff is really rigorous when you're writing on a series, and I guess that's been brilliant in terms of applying that to a crime novel.
James Blatch: What's the word count of your novels?
Simon McCleave: It's going down I think. First one was about 100. Currently about 80.
James Blatch: Do you do any development editing? Or do go just straight to proofing?
Simon McCleave: I still do development editing. I've got an amazing editor who pretty much taught me to write novels in the first book.
James Blatch: Wow.
Simon McCleave: I'm eternally grateful to her, because all the bad habits of being a screenwriter came out in that first book, about POV and head-hopping and all that kind of stuff. She basically drilled that out of me gently, and held my hand through the first book. I've used her ever since. She's very, very good at looking at the first or second draft and spotting when a character's not acting in the way that she would expect or plot holes or ... She's got a fantastic idea if you move that scene back, that will make that act much, much pacier.
I don't think I can do that. I think I'm too close to the book when I hand it to her to do that.
James Blatch: You can name check her if you want.
Simon McCleave: Rebecca Millar. M-I-L-L-A-R.
James Blatch: It just sounds to me like she deserves some public credit here.
Simon McCleave: Yeah, god yeah. I know she's very busy. She's a fantastic editor, and she does the copy-edit. And then I get it proofread. So it goes through a few changes.
James Blatch: And you know more or less what's going to happen in the novel when you write it. So you work backwards from the moment.
What about over the series? I mean have Nick and Ruth panned out in the way that you very first envisaged, or has that happened organically as you wrote their relationship et cetera?
Simon McCleave: That's completely organic. Ruth is the central character, and she had a partner in London who vanished, basically got on a train seven years ago, from Crystal Palace to Victoria, and vanished off the face of the earth. And no one knows what happened to her. So there is an ongoing story through each book where Ruth is trying very slowly to unpick that case and find out where she is or what happened to her.
I know that has to keep going. But where they end up is the one thing that I don't ... I sort of get an instinct by the end of the book of where they might go for the next book, but I certainly don't have an arc for the next seven books to see where they're going to go.
James Blatch: And is there a moonlighting-esque romantic tension there, or is that not like that at all?
Simon McCleave: No, because she's gay, so that also simplifies it.
James Blatch: Yes.
Simon McCleave: She's very open about it, and I think that works really well, because there's no sexual tension. They're like mates. So that works really well for that couple.
James Blatch: Will there be a book which will be geared around the resolution of her missing partner do you think at some point?
Simon McCleave: Somewhere. Some people have already sort of emailed me to say, "You do know that if, once you resolve that, the series finishes." So I'm holding off while it's still sitting well and everyone's clamouring for more. I roughly know how it ends, but it's a way off.
James Blatch: Okay. So just to finish up on the writing side of it. So 2 to 3,000 a day is what you're aiming at.
Do you write in the morning? Do you write in Scrivener? Give us a little bit of idea of your process.
Simon McCleave: I get up. I write in thousand word blasts really, and I can do that in normally an hour, an hour and a half. And sometimes I get one or two of those done in the morning, and then think, right I'll do another one later on.
I find it very hard to get all that done in the morning, because the concentration, it just takes it out of you. So I'm quite happy to do a thousand words and then go off and do some emails or look at some ads and then come back to it, or walk the dog or go for a run and then come back to it. I haven't heard this before, but I sort of tend to space it out, and sometimes even in the evening I'll go back to it and write another 500 words. It's not done in one block and got out the way, which probably would make more sense.
James Blatch: Whatever works.
Simon McCleave: It works.
James Blatch: It clearly is working for you. Okay, let's talk about marketing then.
You ran some lead gen ads in those early days to build a sort of foundation mailing list. What's your marketing setup look like today?
Simon McCleave: Mainly through Amazon ads. Most of my spend goes on that. Running a few Facebook ads at the moment. Dabbled in BookBub and lost a lot of money very quickly. I think you have to be very, very patient with BookBub and do a lot of testing. And sometimes I get a bit impatient and chuck a load of money and then it all disappears. So I need to work on that.
Amazon ads. Probably three quarters of my spend is on that. Targeting genre, certain keywords or also boughts and all that kind of stuff.
James Blatch: You'll be pleased to know there is another BookBub course coming along at some point.
Simon McCleave: Oh is there?
James Blatch: Being authored by BookBub themselves. I've literally just started with the books that we're marketing on BookBub. I must be the only person in the world who can't get it to spend. Everyone says they lose money quickly on BookBub, but my ads have sat there doing almost nothing. But anyway, I need to get into it so I can understand what I'm looking at when I edit the course.
Simon McCleave: Thank you, thank you.
James Blatch: It sounds like a fantastic ... you've got application, which is a key thing for a writer to have. And also it just seems to me like you've worked really efficiently, you've really focused down on the areas that are going to give you the best possible return, and worked on them rather than spent time experimenting and failing. I guess that's the beauty of having people like Mark around to listen to.
Simon McCleave: Yeah. I think I've been very lucky, because I've heard Mark say this about the regionally based crime books are doing very well. JD Kirk or Jason Dalgliesh.
James Blatch: LJ Ross, yeah.
Simon McCleave: Yeah, so I didn't know that, I promise. It wasn't a write-to-market thing. It was literally, I love crime, I love crime novels and I love crime TV and film. And I happen to live near Snowdonia, and I put the two together and I guess I lucked out, because that is definitely a market at the moment. I can tell anecdotally and from my advertising that people hoover them up, they really do. I get people saying, "I've read all five of your books in three days."
James Blatch: Wow.
Simon McCleave: "When can you write a next one?" So I feel quite lucky that I hit that market. It's been quite a ride this year, it's been amazing.
James Blatch: That's what you want, you want those whale readers they call them, don't they? The people who just consume-
Simon McCleave: They're all women over 60, I don't know what that's about, but crime, they're fascinated by killing and crime. I don't know what's going on with that. Long may it last.
James Blatch: Yes, well sounds like you've got a great platform for it. Do you think, so at the moment your plan is to stick with this series. Obviously you've got this development in Ruth's life to happen at some point.
Have you got any ideas for any other series?
Simon McCleave: I should do.
James Blatch: You don't have to.
Simon McCleave: No, I should do, because I think it's another way into the first series, isn't it? I've got an idea about a family of cops. At different levels. It's not a family saga, but sort of running of each person within the family, three generations of a family, they will have their own stories within each book. So I'm toying around with that.
And there is a gangsta character that I've created called Curtis Blake, who's a Liverpudlian drug dealer. And I'm sort of toying with a Sopranos-esque kind of, delve into his life somewhere in Southport near Liverpool and what it's like. But I'm not sure I want to do the research. It sounds a bit dangerous.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Simon McCleave: Those are my two idea at the moment.
James Blatch: Go and score some smack up in Liverpool just to see how the process works.
Simon McCleave: Terrifying.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well you lived in Peckham, so you know. I used to live over the hill in Camberwell and I can remember those days.
Simon McCleave: Oh yeah. Little bit rough around the edges.
James Blatch: Yeah. But extraordinary, London, because it'd be rough around the edges but also you'd get these glorious townhouses right next to ... I've always loved that about London, there's no no-go areas, because you literally, you get very middle class little boutique shops and then huge tenement blocks side by side, don't you?
Simon McCleave: I've got friends who were in Brixton five years ago when Brixton was pretty rough around the edges, and it's gone through the roof, and it's now £2 million for a house. And there are cheese shops in Brixton, so you know, who knew?
James Blatch: Ruth thought everything would be slower moving in Snowdonia, but obviously you've got other ideas.
Simon McCleave: All the dark crazy Welsh stuff has all come out, and there are serial killers and all sort of things going on.
James Blatch: Of course. Well, Simon, thank you so much indeed for sharing that with me.
Simon McCleave: Thank you.
James Blatch: I'm full of admiration for you, and I think this is a very accessible story for people starting out to apply yourself and listen to the experts and follow their advice, rather than, strangely some people who rail against common wisdom. But clearly there's a reason for it.
Simon McCleave: Yeah. This morning I was just scooting through Amazon, and some of the covers ... I'm not being arrogant in any way, but I look at book covers for crime books and go, "That does not look like a crime book cover."
James Blatch: Yeah.
Simon McCleave: Do you think someone's who reads Ian Rankin or a Lynda La Plante book is going to go and buy that book because it looks the same? If not, there's no point, is there?
James Blatch: No.
Simon McCleave: They're basically not going to buy it straightaway without even looking at what it's about.
James Blatch: And we can never underestimate how much people don't know. And why should they at the beginning? Because you're a writer rather than a marketer. And even recognising a genre cover is not something necessarily you've sat down and thought about before. So there's a big world of people out there who don't know the basics. And I don't mean that rudely, it's just the way it is. But clearly you do.
You mentioned Lynda La Plante, of course we interviewed in New York a couple of years ago. But she was presumably a writer you must have rubbed shoulders with at some point in your TV days?
Simon McCleave: I did come across her. I did do a bit of work on Prime Suspect and came across her there. She's a live wire.
James Blatch: She certainly is.
Simon McCleave: I remember being in a bar with her and her telling some fantastic stories for about four hours about life as an actress and life in Liverpool and all sorts of stuff. She's great. She paved the way really for us I think in some ways.
James Blatch: Yeah, she's a hell of a character, and as you say she went through ... She was blonde and attractive and an actress in her early days-
Simon McCleave: Yeah, that's right.
James Blatch: And that meant that she was completely pigeonholed by almost everyone she met and had to really fight her way into being a writer. So if you want to listen to Lynda La Plante, go back to our New York episode a couple of years ago, I think it was. We could have probably gone for about four hours listening to her raconteur, but there you go.
Simon, thank you so much indeed for joining us from beautiful Snowdonia.
Simon McCleave: Thank you, James.
James Blatch: We've seen a bookcase at least, but we know out the window it looks lovely. And best of luck with the rest of the books.
Simon McCleave: Lovely. Thanks very much, James. Take care.
James Blatch: Got quite a few accents from me going into that interview.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, we had South London I think. And then I think we may have had Taggart from Glasgow.
James Blatch: There's been a murder in Peterborough, Edinburgh.
Mark Dawson: They all sound just like you though, that's the problem.
James Blatch: We had a Scottish reporter called Ross McWilliam when I was working there, and whenever he walked into the newsroom people said, "There's been a murder in Peterborough." Which I think is the Taggart thing.
Mark Dawson: Was that funny for very long?
James Blatch: It was very, very funny. The long winter nights flew by, I can tell you. Anyway, Simon, what a fantastic guy to speak to.
Mark Dawson: I'm sure they did.
James Blatch: And yeah. There's scope, I mean you're writing, you've got your Atticus Finch, your Atticus, what's he called?
Mark Dawson: Priest.
James Blatch: Priest, that's it. Priest books. We can think about LJ Ross, and there's a big bank of writers now, who write these really enjoyable detective series. Barry Hutchison's another one.
That's that thing that we explore every now and again, Mark, is that readers aren't necessarily looking for the next new thing, which the publishing industry often thinks they are. They're looking for the same thing again, because that's what they enjoy.
Mark Dawson: Exactly. The Milton series now is 18 books strong, and a few reviewers have noted that it's the same formula. And it is, Milton arrives in a new place, someone needs his help, Milton helps them, then he goes off somewhere else. That is basically the formula. Most readers, as I said before, each new book in the series does better than the previous one, so readers are still enjoying that. They know what they're going to get. I think most of them enjoy that, and they come back for more. So as long as that's their expectation, I'll keep trying to fulfil it for them.
And the same will go with Atticus, there'll be the same tropes appropriate to his articular genre. I'll keep trying to hit those so that readers get what they're expecting. Because you start subverting those expectations and you find that readers don't necessarily want to buy the second book quite so much.
James Blatch: I told you about my friend Nick who I play cricket with who picked up one of your books. We just coincidentally had a conversation standing in the slips and he was reading this book and it sounded a bit like yours. I said, "Is it Mark Dawson?" He goes, "Yeah." Anyway I spoke to him last weekend and he's on book 16 or something of John Milton, so he's just gone through the series, which I think is ...
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it happens quite a lot. It's nice to hear that. I don't get bored of people telling me that, because it means I'm doing something right, so that's good.
James Blatch: You are. Thank you very much indeed for joining us today. Thank you to our guest, Simon McCleave, don't forget the Self Publishing 101 course is open. For a couple of weeks, you can go to selfpublishingformula.com/101, that's the digits 101.
James Blatch: Good. That's it. All that leaves me to say is that it is a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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