SPS-310: The Kindle Storyteller Winner, 2021 – with Rachel McLean

Crime author Rachel McLean has approached her writing career in a very methodical way. In this conversation, she shares with James what she’s focused on that has landed her with 8 books in the Kindle top 100 at the same time.

Show Notes

  • On choosing a book genre that will be profitable
  • How research about books later supports marketing efforts
  • Advertising with Amazon using categories rather than keywords
  • Ensuring covers fit well into a category
  • Rachel’s writing routine, including dictation
  • 5 Steps to a successful writing career

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

HANDOUT: Click here for Rachel’s PDF for listeners about the 5 Steps to Author Success

FREE TIKTOK AUTHOR ADS ADVENTURE: Sign up here to receive notice when the adventure begins

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


SPS-310: The Kindle Storyteller Winner, 2021 - with Rachel McLean
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.

Rachel McLean: Nothing replaces testing it yourself, starting with a low budget, finding out what works and what doesn't, and just keeping iterating it with tweaks and changes rather than just saying, "I'll do what so-and-so did because that worked for them," because it just doesn't work like that.

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, it's Friday. It's Christmas Eve if you're listening to this on the day of release. It's James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson. Happy Christmas.

James Blatch: Can we say happy Christmas?

Mark Dawson: Merry Christmas, happy Christmas, whatever your choice of Christmas salutations-

James Blatch: Happy Hanukkah, happy holidays, everything else as well. Yes, indeed. So I do hope that you have some time off over the next couple of days if you are listening to this on release day. You might well be listening to it in January, or who knows? June 2024. But anyway. Let's pretend it's Christmas if you're not here live. Have some time off, have some downtime, very important to have some time with your family over Christmas.

In the New Year we have lots of things for you to get busy with should you wish to really focus on your author career. And our focus in January is going to be two things. It's going to be TikTok, which is a new social media platform that's really moving the needle on book sales as we say, a bit of a cliché, and also we are going to be opening the doors to Ads for Authors for one of only two times in 2022.

The course might potentially be revamped, repackaged and may even be a little bit more expensive in the summer the way we're working out at the moment. It is a huge course now, and TikTok for Authors we think will be one of the most important modules we've ever added to it, and that will go free-of-charge to anybody who's already in Ads for Authors, so it's very important to get in before the price goes up because you'll get everything in the future as part of your original payment.

And, of course, we are going to add it to everyone who signs up in this January. Okay. So if you want to take part in our TikTok challenge which we mentioned in ... TikTok expedition, I should say, which we mentioned last week, there's still a chance to sign up for that, so we're going to kick off in the New Year. This will be a series of videos. They'll take you through the process really simply, really straightforward, everyone will be able to follow it, to set up your account and get to day five, step five, which will be to post your first video. And that'll be the platform, it'll be a brilliant platform actually if you then do go on into Ads for Authors and take the module to really step up your TikTok game.

To sign up for the expedition, it's free of course, go to, T-I-K-T-O-K. You will also, the email you get back, you'll be invited to join an exclusive Facebook group for authors using TikTok. It's already growing. There's already 1000, I think, members and we've just opened it a couple of days ago. That will become a repository of information and a place to discuss your TikTok strategies.

Mark, are you going to do the expedition?

Mark Dawson: I am, yeah. I've packed my gear. Just try and stretch that as far as possible. I've packed my gear, I've got my crampons. I'm going to be scaling the north face of mount TikTok, and looking forward to it. It's going to be interesting. I think more for perhaps the kids' book might be something that I might try, see whether there's anything I can do to generate some interest for the kids' book coming out in early January.

Very interested to see what other people come up with, and that's going to be one of the fun things in the Facebook group, people posting their TikToks and we can see if we can pick out some potential future stars.

We've already mentioned Caroline Peckham a few times with regards to just doing amazingly well with that ... not just with that platform but in particular with that platform and some of the things that she's come up with are quite-

James Blatch: And Susanne Valenti, her sister, we should say.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, both of them. I've only really seen Caroline's, but just what they've come up with is inventive, often quite funny, and yeah, clearly working for them. She's got some very good ideas. But no, generally we'll definitely ... it's always the case, we will always see when we open the course, there's always someone who'll ... Well, more than someone. Usually a few people come from nowhere and within six months are just crushing it, and I would be not surprised at all if someone who hasn't done a TikTok as they're listening to this right now takes the course, or takes the expedition then maybe takes the course and then in three or four months' time is like we get them on the podcast because they've suddenly gone viral and they've sold boatloads of books. It happens all the time, and we love seeing that because that means there's an excuse for you to go on an aeroplane and do an interview.

James Blatch: Yes, indeed.

Mark Dawson: Not that we like travelling, but you know.

James Blatch: I'm going to interview Caroline and Susanne who Mark mentioned there. They're spicy romance authors, dark romance authors here in the UK. They have done sensationally well since we spoke to them on the podcast. They had a really good start but they've just flown since and they are huge sellers of books now, dominating some of those areas.

I'm speaking to them on the 17th of January and we might even be able to turn that interview around really quickly and broadcast is straight away because I think it'd be useful during that period when we're focusing on TikTok to talk-

Mark Dawson: Are you going to see them or are you ...

James Blatch: I'm probably not going to see them, probably do it online.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: I might go and see them. They're not too far away. They're in Biggin Hill. Famous Battle of Britain base, yes. I could do. But going to see two people as well, I would need Mark and Tom with me. It's not out of the question. We'll see.

Mark Dawson: You don't need Mark with you. You need John with you.

James Blatch: No, I don't need you, that's true. No, don't let Mark near the camera. Tom and John, I should say. Anyway, COVID is raising its ugly head as we speak so that might not be possible. We'll see.

Now we have an interview today with an award-winner, an award-winning author, which is Rachel McLean. This is the Kindle Storyteller Award in the UK which goes on every year. I think there was one in the US as well. Is there not? But I don't think we're-

Mark Dawson: No.

James Blatch: ... directly involved ... There isn't one?

Mark Dawson: There isn't-

James Blatch: So it's a UK thing?

Mark Dawson: ... but US authors can enter.

James Blatch: Yes, okay. So Rachel McLean is the winner of the 2022 award and she is, it turns out, to be a very useful person to speak to because she's very clear about the steps that she had to take, the mistakes that she made, the things she got right to build a platform that's enabled her to be commercially successful, and she's doing very well now. She's put these together, so it's quite a structured interview.

And to go along with it is a PDF, a very useful PDF, called 5 Steps. So if you go to, the digit five and then steps, you'll be able to download that PDF to go along with this interview. And it's a very useful thing for you to tick off as you go through as well and make sure that you've done the same sort of steps that Mark and others and Rachel spells out here that'll put you in a great position to be able to sell your books.

Some of it's obvious and some of it's not so obvious in that, but even the obvious stuff, people post into our group, don't they, sometimes, Mark, saying, "I can't get any traffic," and then you look and there's things like the cover is the wrong cover for that genre, really clear things like that. So to have a checklist in front of you I think is very useful. So here is our interview with Rachel, then Mark and I will be back for a quick chat.

Rachel McLean, welcome to The Self Publishing Show, and before anything else, let me say congratulations on winning the Kindle Storyteller Award.

Rachel McLean: Thank you very much. I'm still reeling from it.

James Blatch: When did you find out you were nominated?

Rachel McLean: I found out I was nominated about a month before the awards. I got an email for Darren Hardy at KDP saying he'd like to have a phone conversation about my entry for the Kindle Storyteller Award, and I had entered it before and never been asked for a phone call, so I thought, "Ooh. This could be me being a finalist." And then I spoke to him the next day and he told me I was one of five finalists and I did a happy dance round my kitchen. I was very happy.

James Blatch: Fantastic. And then you have the award ceremony, which was in-person I think this year?

Rachel McLean: It was, yes. Last year they did it online, but this year ... it was a bit of a compromise because it was just the finalists and Clare Balding who was the lead judge, and we went to a studio in London, which they'd hired out, and had a ceremony which was broadcast on Zoom. I know a lot of my family and friends and quite a few of my readers were watching it. And that was where we found out, we literally found out live who'd won, so we had no inkling beforehand.

James Blatch: Did you practise your gallant loser face, which is what you have to practise at the Oscars?

Rachel McLean: To be honest, I wasn't expecting to win. I was so focused on the fact that the whole process was so much fun. I got to meet some other great authors. I got to go down to London and meet Clare Balding, who I'm a big fan of. And I didn't really think about how I'd react because I was enjoying myself anyway and wasn't worried about how I'd look if I lost.

So then actually when I won, that was the face I really hadn't practised because I wasn't expecting to win. You can hear me gasp on the tape. I was genuinely gobsmacked.

James Blatch: That's good. You always do see them go, "Oh, that's brilliant," and you know they've rehearsed that. "And the winner is Jodie Foster." "Whoa, that's brilliant." They never sit there going, "This is bullshit. Why has she won?" Which is what they should be saying.

Rachel McLean: We were sharing memes beforehand because the five of us sought each other out and were communicating before we went down to work out how we could meet up, that sort of thing. And we were sharing Oscars memes of people doing that.

James Blatch: Excellent. Okay, well, look, congratulations. Let's talk a bit about your books and then we're going to talk about the marketing journey that you've been on. Oh, I used the J word. Let's start with your books.

Tell us about your writing.

Rachel McLean: Yes, so I write crime fiction. I write police procedurals set in the UK. I've got two series out. The first one is the Detective Inspector Zoe Finch series which is set in Birmingham, my home city. And the second series is the Dorset Crime series, which is set, as you might imagine, in Dorset, and it's the first book in that, Corfe Castle Murders, which is the one that won the award.

James Blatch: Have they all been similar toned mystery? Are they police procedurals? How would you describe them?

Rachel McLean: Yeah, they're police procedurals. I like writing suspense and I like writing dark mystery rather than the lighthearted cosy mystery. I also write characters who swear, and you can't do that in cosies, so I very deliberately decided to write police procedurals.

It's also something I read and I really enjoy reading. I'd been writing thrillers that didn't really fit in a genre for a few years. I started self-publishing in 2017 and I'd published, there are nine books, all of which got good reviews but didn't sell very well at all.

Beginning of 2020 I thought, "I really need to look at what I'm doing and why it's not working," and I did quite a lot of research. I actually took a couple of months off writing and identified a genre that I felt I could hit more squarely and get a readership. And I did a lot of research into what the genre tropes were, what readers were responding to and what other authors were doing, particularly indie and the authors with the digital publishers. And looking at how I could not copy it but use that to write my own style of it and get an audience.

James Blatch: So your background for writing is somebody who came at this, certainly in the media past, came at this from a commercial point of view? You want to be writing full-time, you want this to be your career.

You've done almost like a kettle-producing company or kitchen appliance producing company would do their market research and they'd work out, "Where is the gap and how can I do that?"

Rachel McLean: Yeah. I think the first books I wrote were books that I'd had in my head for a while and I really wanted to write them, those passion projects which I think a lot of people have got and I think that's how a lot of people start writing. But I was working as a freelance technical writer. I was writing about web development. I used to be a web developer. And that was great. It was better than most jobs. But it had got to the point where I'd been doing that for a few years and I was writing the same stuff again and again for different clients and it was just dull. It wasn't inspiring me at all. And I thought, "I really want to make a go of this."

I'd also missed out on three years of professional development in my day job because I'd been so focused on learning about publishing, and I knew that it was getting to the point where I either had to go back to investing time in that or I had to really make this work so that I could do it full-time. So yes, I decided to identify a genre that I felt I could make a full-time living from, which was crime, and I've done much better than I thought I would. I sell a few thousand books a day now.

James Blatch: That's fantastic. I'm very excited to hear how you got to that level, so we'll go into detail on that. Just one more question on the writing side of things, all things being equal.

If any genre you chose in the world would sell an equal amount, what genre would you choose? What's your love? And that Venn diagram between what's going to sell and what you want to write, that overlap, are you there anyway?

Rachel McLean: The books that I wrote when I first started out were dystopian alternate history, so they were very much inspired by things like The Handmaid's Tale and Station Eleven, the kind of books where it's the real world but with a little twist and you could imagine them really happening, and I really enjoy reading books like that. I enjoyed writing those because I enjoyed exploring those ideas.

But I think I had a few ideas and concepts that I wanted to explore and I wrote those, and I did really enjoy writing those but what I really enjoy about the crime is the characters. And characters, it wasn't an aspect of writing that I'd really focused on that much before because I was so into the ideas. But writing a series and the Dorset Crime series, I'm planning on nine of those, I'm currently writing book five, I really enjoy getting to know those people and I love it when readers talk to me about my characters as if they're real people.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Rachel McLean: That's so satisfying.

James Blatch: That is special. I love getting those emails from people that are angry that a character did something or want to know what's happening next and sort of say, "This is the character I think you should be carrying on with." Because you know you've created something that's made a little bit of difference to them in terms of their imagination.

Rachel McLean: I had an email from a reader with a disability last week and she'd said that my books had helped her get through some really difficult days where she'd been in pain and hadn't been able to get out of bed, and that is so gratifying to know that my writing had helped make her life that little bit better.

James Blatch: Yeah. So the genre you've chosen, there's no question about it, it's a very, very widely read genre. People love it, so there's a lot of appetite for those types of books, and I can think of ... Well, we think of LJ Ross of course. I mean, even JK Rowling's Robert Galbraith I guess is not too dissimilar. Barry Hutchison has moved into this, I think almost exactly the same pathway as you, thinking, "Where's going to be a commercially viable option for me?"

But that also means it must be quite crowded. There must be a lot of people whose names we don't know who are starting and trying to fill that space. So from a marketing point of view, you must have got a lot right.

Can you talk to us a little bit about how you approach the marketing?

Rachel McLean: I agree it is crowded and I know that the advice is often to find a niche that you can stand out in. I prefer to find a big marketplace where I could potentially find a lot of readers and work as hard as I could to hit that and hit reader expectations and find what readers loved. I did a lot of research on that.

I think the research I did before writing was an important part of the marketing because it meant that not only was I confident I had something that people would want to buy, but also I knew exactly who my comps were. Barry was one of those comps, and LJ Ross, Louise, Barry writing as J.D. Kirk. But also some of the writers who are published by the digital-first publishers like Bookouture and Joffe.

I looked at what they were doing. I identified what they were doing in terms of writing and in terms of marketing. And then when it came to kicking off the first in the series, I did what is often not advised to do is I ran adverts for pre-order and I put the first Zoe Finch book, Deadly Wishes, on pre-order a couple of months before it was due to come out, ran really low-level Facebook ads just starting at a few pounds a day. And they were doubling their money-

James Blatch: Wow.

Rachel McLean: ... just on that book.

James Blatch: On the pre-order?

Rachel McLean: Yeah, on pre-order. I mean obviously they weren't yet because I wasn't going to get those royalties for quite a long time, so my cashflow was challenging for a little while, but obviously I had the day job to help me cover that. So the Facebook ads, what they did was they seeded the sales on Amazon and they tickled the algorithms and told Amazon that these books were converting, and the book was converting really well.

At that point, there was only the one book in the series, which is a disadvantage in crime because people like to read series with lots of books. So as soon as I released that, I think actually a couple of days before I released it, I put the next book on pre-order, and I always make sure I've got at least one book on pre-order so that people can pre-order the next book in the series.

I set up Facebook ads, slowly upped the budget as I was releasing more books, reached a point where I spend about, on each series, I advertised the first in series, I spend about £40 a day almost exclusively in the UK. Occasionally I'll run some to the US and Australia, but they're less profitable for me. And that's the point at which, if I go over that spend, I'm not actually selling any more books because the cost-per-click becomes higher.

Then last summer once I was at the point where I had the second book on pre-order so I could see that the read through was getting me better ROI, I started experimenting with Amazon Ads, again at a really low budget. I did a lot of tinkering with Amazon Ads. I actually spent a lot of time on them because although Facebook ads are more complex in terms of putting together creative and that sort of thing, Amazon ads are more complex in terms of the options and the fact that you have more control over who they're getting delivered to. With Facebook, what I tend to find is actually advertising to UK readers of crime fiction and then letting Facebook work out who those people are who are going to respond to my adverts is what works best.

With Amazon, I did quite a lot of tinkering, so I started out by product targeting and targeting the ASINs of my comps. So I used a scraper to get the ASINs of all the books in the series by given authors to target those.

James Blatch: Do you remember which scraper you used?

Rachel McLean: Now, it was one that's in one of the SPF courses. Is it Data Miner?

James Blatch: Data Miner, okay.

Rachel McLean: I actually posted in the community group I think it was, in one of the groups, about a technique I had to automate that as much as possible, so I dumped it in a spreadsheet and used an automated process to pull out those ASINs. That worked for a while but I think it got to the point where there weren't really enough books that I was advertising against because it was just ASINs.

James Blatch: Roughly how many ASINs would you have in a campaign?

Rachel McLean: In a campaign I would probably have about 50 ASINs and I was running a couple of campaigns, so not that many books to target. It worked for a while but I think people got fatigue from seeing those books. So I then started experimenting with advertising against categories, which I know is quite unusual because most people keywords.

I'd used keywords in the past with my other books and not really got very far with them, and I was keen on using ASINs at first and then categories because you can specifically target ebooks. Whereas using keywords you'll find that your adverts come up against paperbacks where somebody will click through and they're a paperback reader and if they buy the paperback, my profit margin on paperbacks is abysmal. And if I'm paying quite a lot for an ad, it's just not getting me the return on investment.

So I switched to using categories and I'm constantly experimenting with using different subcategories to advertise against and tweaking budgets, putting bids up and down, experimenting with adding the percentage to be at the top of search, all that sort of thing. And I probably review that about once a month now. Most of it I leave to run but at the end of every month, I'll go through all my figures, look at which targets are working and make some tweaks.

James Blatch: That's interesting. I agree with you completely that Facebook is, on the face of it, a more complex platform but in reality it's Amazon Ads that I think take more time, research and knowledge to get working. I'm one of a myriad number of people who have given up and I, funnily enough, I've resolved in the last few days, "This clearly is an area that's going to work."

I've had a good conversation with Jasper Joffe actually last week as well about this and I need to get back into that for future books.

As you say, scaling up Facebook ads is easy. You can spend as much as you want very quickly. Amazon Ads, funnily enough, it can't. But that margin, the cost-per-clicks, you need them down as low as possible with Facebook.

With Amazon Ads, cost-per-click can be higher, can't it? Because it's a higher converting environment.

Rachel McLean: It is higher, but I find that it converts better and also I think there are more organic sales being driven by Amazon Ads. So although they're not directly being reported on the dashboard, they're not directly driving those sales, I think the fact that people see those ads in the Amazon app or website or wherever they're looking at it, it's a bit of a closer connection for them and they're more likely to then buy the book if they see it in some other way. So if they see it in the also boughts or something like that.

I notice if I turn my Amazon Ads off, my organic sales will drop. The vast majority of my sales are organic sales now. I've definitely, all of the work that I've done using Amazon and Facebook ads and a little bit of BookBub ads but not much, on feeding Amazon that information about who it should be selling my books to and who my comps are is definitely working because I get a steady stream of thousands of organic sales. So the sales directly driven by ads is a really small proportion of my sales now.

James Blatch: It underlines the importance of tracking those sales and benchmarking. Which, ultimately, if you have something running and you change it, look at what it does yourselves, regardless of what a dashboard tells you. That's the ultimate test, isn't it, what your sales are, have they gone up or down? Amazon Ads would do better, wouldn't they, if their attribution was stronger.

I do think they under-report sales and it does look a bit dismal on your dashboard sometimes when you see that you're at 400 and 500% ACoS.

Rachel McLean: Yeah, I think it can do. I know a lot of people worry that it's under-reporting sales but I do wonder whether, given that outside the author community there are advertisers who are completely reliant on Amazon advertising for their sales and are spending megabucks, I would wonder whether ... obviously the legalities of Amazon not correctly reporting what people are getting out of that-

James Blatch: Yeah, sorry, I don't mean they're deliberately misreporting or not reporting sales. I just mean on your dashboard, attributing a sale to an advertising campaign, I think that's under-reported probably because of exactly the process you mentioned. People don't instantly go, "There it is, I'm going to buy it." They see it and then later in the day they see again. And the third time they go onto Amazon, they remember and they go and buy it.

Well, then it hasn't been tracked from a link click from an ad. That's not how advertising works. Whereas Facebook I think once you've clicked it, you're sitting there for a few days afterwards. Both should work in the same way, but my hunch is that you get more sales from your Amazon Ads than you see on the dashboard, my hunch.

Rachel McLean: I think that could be right. I think that those later on or possibly indirect sales, because the way they're tracked different, it's probably under-reported in that sense.

James Blatch: Let's talk a little bit more, if you don't mind, about Amazon Ads, particularly because I'm going to roll my sleeves up and get back into it. I'm going to properly dive into Janet's course again and go through that.

So there's setting up the campaign in the first place and you've got these couple of options. I have not used the category advertising. In fact, I don't think I've really looked at it.

Can you talk to us a little bit about the category, what options you have with that?

Rachel McLean: When you go into categories, it's a very similar process to if you're directly targeting ASINs, if you're targeting products. So you're looking at product instead of keyword targeting. And then within that, you have access to all of the subcategories across Amazon. Initially it will make recommendations to you. The first screen ... well, it's not a screen. It's a section of the screen that you see, gives you a list of subcategories. And sometimes these will make sense. They'll be the subcategories that your book is shelved in. But sometimes they'll be completely random.

I was going in yesterday and setting up an advert for The Corfe Castle Murders, which is police procedural, and it suggested romantic suspense to me. Now I don't know whether there's some metadata going on there because there is a love interest in there, but it's definitely not romantic suspense and I don't categorise it as such.

But obviously I didn't choose that because that's not where my comps are. But what you can do is you can either scroll through all the categories that are available, which would take forever because it gives you access to everything on Amazon, or you can search.

So I will search at first for the categories that I'm actually got my books categorised in and test against those. Sometimes I'll place my book in other categories because I might be wanting to ... particularly when I'm getting to the point where I feel an audience is starting to get stretched, I will place ads in a parallel category that my book might not actually be categorised in. Which can work, but you have to monitor the cost per sale on that.

And then when I'm looking at the cost, the actual value of those sales, I completely ignore what the dashboard gives me because obviously it doesn't take into account the fact that you're only getting 70% and it doesn't take into account read through, so I monitor the value of a sale using the read through formula that Mark uses in his courses and then compare that to what I'm spending on getting sales.

In the early days, I spent a lot of time doing this. I had a spreadsheet that I was updating every single day and putting a lot of data in it. And then I reached the point where I realised I wasn't using that to make decisions because most of it was running quite happily and I didn't have to make those decisions every day. So now I'll do it every couple of weeks.

At the end of the month, I'll formally record it and I've got a spreadsheet where I keep records of all my sales and where they're coming from and what formats and which ads and all that sort of stuff every month. But I'll tend to monitor it around the middle of the month as well just to keep an eye on things.

James Blatch: And on the optimization side of it, once you've got some results from a campaign, that's where Amazon Ads actually does start to look more complicated than Facebook ads. You do have a lot of options there, don't you?

Rachel McLean: Yes. I've not 100% got to grips with this yet. I'm still experimenting with it. The ads that I'm running for my Birmingham-based series, the Zoe Finch series, they've been running for longer and they are very profitable because there are six books in the series. And even though the conversion on those is lower, because there's six books I find that the value of a sale is very high.

The Dorset Crimes ones, there's now four of those. I just released one week before last, so the value of a sale has gone up with that fourth book coming out. But even so, I have to keep more of an eye on the cost per sale of that one.

On that one for example, I'm not using Bid+. I'm just experimenting with doing bidding up or down and seeing which of those works best. And then I'll look at the increasing your bid for the top of search and the product placement in the carousel, that sort of thing.

The other thing that I've been experimenting with is whether to use a different ad set for each category or a different category within the ad set. So for the Zoe Finch books, what I did was I set up a campaign and then I set up multiple ad sets, each of which corresponded to a category and was just targeting that one category, and that worked really well.

And then for the Dorset Crime books, I got a bit lazy to be honest because you can set up one ad set and you can target multiple categories within it, so I did that because it was much quicker because I only had to add the book once and then I just select lots of categories and I did that. But I'm finding that I'm getting much more expensive clicks on that. So I've recently changed that so it's doing an ad set per category, and I've only changed that this week so the jury's still out in terms of the data.

But my reasoning is that possibly if you're running multiple categories within one ad set, there's more competition between them maybe, the way that the ad is structured means that when it comes to the bidding, that works different. It may or may not be. Janet will know better than I do.

James Blatch: But she'd thoroughly approve of your testing.

And also that testing may be different results for different people in different genres so that's why the way you test is a really good example of getting it right.

Rachel McLean: Yeah, and that's why it's so important. Doing a course is great and I learnt a huge amount, particularly about Facebook ads, from Mark's courses, but nothing replaces testing it yourself, starting with a low budget, finding out what works and what doesn't and just keeping iterating it with tweaks and changes rather than just saying, "I'll do what so-and-so did because that worked for them," because it just doesn't work like that.

James Blatch: Going back a little bit to your initial success with the pre-order, was that with your Zoe series, the Birmingham one? Was that your first series, wasn't it?

Rachel McLean: Yeah, it was. So that was with Deadly Wishes, which was the first book in that series.

James Blatch: Zoe's-

Rachel McLean: And that was deep in lockdown and I think I was helped by that. It actually made the process of writing the book quite interesting, because obviously I couldn't go out to do any research, which is part of the reason I chose to write about my own city because I know Birmingham really well. But quite a few of the scenes, they were set around Selly Oak and Edgbaston, which is south Birmingham. I used to live over there but I now live in north Birmingham, and they've done quite a lot of roadworks and changed the road layout.

I was having to check on Google Maps and just get the routes that my detectives would be taking to go and apprehend a suspect or whatever. And when they were doing the government press conferences and they were talking about how many people had been using Google Maps and breaking lockdown, I was thinking, "Yeah, I'm probably accounting for quite a lot of that data."

James Blatch: Yes. Yeah, it was just you. You weren't actually leaving house. But, by the way, try writing a book set in 1963. Then you have to go onto eBay and buy an old AA Road Atlas from that era-

Rachel McLean: Oh wow.

James Blatch: ... because they even changed the names of the roads.

I'm thinking that you must have got a lot right with the package at that point, with the cover, the blurb, the tagline, the sell and look of the book. Talk to us a little bit about that process.

Rachel McLean: I did a lot of work looking firstly at the covers for other books in the genre and identifying some very specifically what my closest comps' covers looked like so that I could make sure that my covers signalled to readers really clearly what they could expect inside.

And I actually did something that I know is not advised, but I did my own covers. I used to work in graphic design so I was comfortable doing that. And I think with police procedurals, because covers tend to be manipulated photos ... I definitely couldn't do a cover if I was doing fantasy or something like that, or anything with illustrations. But it's actually fairly straightforward if you know your way around fonts and layouts and that kind of thing to put together a cover for a crime book.

I like doing that because it means I have got access to all of the assets and the files and I can do other things with them and create ads and banners and all that sort of thing for social media. I did quite a lot of work looking at my comps obviously on Amazon. I wasn't able to go into bookshops and do it. And picked out what the aspects were.

What's interesting is that, because I keep a really close eye on my genre, I'm constantly watching what's happening in the crime charts, and the trends are changing. At around the time that I published the Zoe Finch one, it was very much a trend to have a landscape with a detective in it, so similar to Mark's books with that kind of idea.

James Blatch: A solitary figure.

Rachel McLean: Yeah. Now there's less books being published with that. There tend to be more that are just landscapes. And so with the Dorset Crime ones, I don't have the figure. Which actually, when you're writing about somewhere like Dorset, is a real advantage because there are so many beautiful landscapes that I could use on my covers so I don't have to worry about trying to scale a figure against Corfe Castle or whatever, which, to be honest, would be very hard because the cover of Corfe Castle Murders would have a tiny little person standing on the top of it or something.

I'm constantly watching that and seeing how it looks. And for example, my next series that I'm planning to write next year will be set in Scotland, so I've been looking at Scottish authors and the fact that there are some slightly different styles and habits there in terms of how the covers look. So I want to make it quite clear without putting tartan on it or anything like that. Make it clear that this is a tartan noire, a Scottish crime thriller.

James Blatch: Do you still do your own covers?

Rachel McLean: I do, yes.

James Blatch: So that Corfe Castle we can see behind you, if you're watching on YouTube, kindly created for you by Amazon I believe?

Rachel McLean: Yeah, they did. This was the poster that they put up behind me at the award ceremony. They said they were going to put them in the post and all of the finalists said, "Yeah, great." And we didn't actually expect them to put them in the post. It's a massive great heavy thing. It's not cardboard. It's something much more solid. And it turned up a couple of weeks ago so I thought I'd use it for this.

James Blatch: Looks great.

Rachel McLean: Yeah, so I did that myself using Affinity Pro.

James Blatch: Not Photoshop?

Rachel McLean: No. I've been using Photoshop for years and I had a few years where I didn't use it, and I found that coming back to using it after a few years, it was a bit overwhelming, all of the features that had been added. And sometimes like Affinity Pro is actually like using Photoshop back in the days when I used it-

James Blatch: Is it? A bit simpler?

Rachel McLean: ... all the time.

James Blatch: I use Photoshop. I find it frustrating. I find it the least intuitive software that I ever use. And honestly doing simple things, I end up having to google how to do it every time. I sat there thinking, "Surely I can do that. Surely I can open this layer and move it." But then I have to google it and think, "Oh, that's how you do it." But it's powerful and it does the job, but yeah I do find it frustrating as well. Anyway, let's talk a little bit about writing, then.

So you're obviously writing quite fast. A book a month, is that about right?

Rachel McLean: A book every two months.

James Blatch: Every two months, okay.

Rachel McLean: The first three Dorset Crime books I brought out on fairly rapid release, so I saved those up and released them two weeks apart, so there were three books that came out in the space of four weeks. And that worked really, really well because the read through was very strong on those, and that was this summer. It was a really good time to be releasing books set in Dorset on the summer that nobody could go abroad. Because I was getting so many emails and messages from people saying, "I'm sitting on Swanage Beach reading your book. Nobody's been murdered."

James Blatch: So you think.

Rachel McLean: The crime rate rocketed in Dorset when my detective turned up there.

James Blatch: Of course. It's Midsomer effect, isn't it?

Rachel McLean: Absolutely.

James Blatch: Tell us about your writing day. How does that look?

Rachel McLean: I dictate my first drafts now, which I do not so much for speed because I find the editing takes longer, but I do it for health reasons. I broke my collarbone 17 years ago and I get shoulder pain if I sit typing for too long. So I've now got a system whereby ... the idea of getting the most important thing done as early as possible in the day. So I take my kids to school. I sit in the car after they've got out the car and I dictate two chapters before I drive home.

James Blatch: Do people think you maybe look insane?

Rachel McLean: There's this weird woman with her phone.

James Blatch: Monitoring the movements of people around you.

Rachel McLean: So I do that on my phone and I upload them to Google Drive while I'm sitting there.

James Blatch: Wow.

Rachel McLean: I use record them and as a backup but I use a human transcriber. I have a woman called Beck in Australia and she transcribes overnight for me. So when I get home, I can be editing yesterday's dictated transcript so I can try and keep on top of it, although I do find some weeks I've got other things to be doing and I'll end up doing a lot of that editing towards the end of the week.

And then at the end of each week, I send the batch that has been done this week to my editor. So it gets the first draft dictated and then the second draft is my edited version of that, and then it goes to my editor. And he edits as I go along, so he'll be editing the book alongside me writing it. He'll be about maybe 10,000, 20,000 words behind me.

That means that when we get to the end of the process and the book is finished, he can then finish it within a few days because he hasn't got the whole manuscript to edit. And that's a process that we've landed on. Joel and I have worked on I think it's 10 books together now.

James Blatch: Wow.

Rachel McLean: And that process started almost by accident really because of our diaries, meaning that it worked doing that with one book and it actually works really well. Because it also means if he spots something early on in the book that needs to change, I can work that into the rest of the book rather than having to go back and edit the whole book and make changes.

James Blatch: It sounds like you have an editor to yourself there. He must do some other work in-between.

Rachel McLean: He does do other work. He's doing some work for Hannah Lynn, who was a previous winner of the Storyteller Award in the new year I think. His name's Joel Hames and he's also a crime and thriller writer but he does a lot of editing.

We work together really, really well because he's very good at maintaining my author voice and not trying to impose his own. He's brilliant at remembering what's happened in earlier books. I will forget. I'll be writing and referring to something that happened four books ago and I'll get it completely wrong and he'll write comments, "No, no, no. That's not how it happens."

And he also understands the genre and he's got his eye on it, so we can talk about where my books are going and what series I'm planning and things like that. So although he's not formally part of my business, he's almost like the second person in my business because he's the person who I run ideas off and chat to regularly.

James Blatch: It sounds like a great system. How many words do you get done when you're in the fresh writing, when you start with the dictation?

Rachel McLean: The dictation, a chapter tends to be about 1000 words, possibly a bit less. I write very short chapters, so maybe 800 words. So I'll dictate two chapters every day, and I'll do that every day. At the weekend I'll normally dictate one chapter, but I'm trying not to break the chain and just get a little bit done every day. It then takes about two months to do that.

But because I'm writing just a small amount each day, a dictation only takes half an hour to dictate two chapters and then the editing will take me a couple of hours. So that means I've then got the afternoon to work on marketing and business and all the other stuff that needs doing.

James Blatch: How easy was it for you to start dictating from typing?

Rachel McLean: It was hard at first. The first book that I dictated was The Corfe Castle Murders and the editing was painful because my dictation was pretty poor. I found it really hard to get into any sort of flow. And what I started to try and get round that was before I dictated a chapter, I would make quite detailed notes as to what was going to happen, and I would find myself almost reading those notes, which would make it worse. And it also meant that I was taking almost as long to dictate as I would to type it, because I was handwriting notes beforehand.

But I kept at it because I knew that I was doing this full-time now and I wanted to protect my shoulder, and I found after probably three books I got to the point where I now can just pick up my phone. I have a printout which lists all the chapters and just a sentence as to what's going to happen in them, and that comes out of Scrivener.

I use the corkboard view in Scrivener to plot all the chapters. Print that out and then I'll use that, so I'll just read what's going to happen in that chapter, take a few moments to think. If it's a complicated scene like for example a crime scene or a postmortem, I might put notes in there that I need to add more in later because there's detail that I need to look up. But generally I find I can then just sit down and it takes me about 10 minutes to dictate a chapter.

James Blatch: Wow. And when you're dictating, do you have to put the punctuation in or do you leave that for editing later?

Rachel McLean: No, that's why I don't use software because I started using the software at first and I found that I have a lot of dialogue in my books and I just got sick of putting the punctuation in. It slowed me down so much. It got me out of the flow. It meant that I wasn't focused on the creative side of things.

And it also it was just like pulling teeth. It was so dull. It was no fun at all. And I kept missing it. I kept forgetting and then I'd have to go back in and edit it in. And then I thought, "I need to find somebody who will do this for me and add punctuation in." Which works really well.

I was inspired to do that by Kevin J. Anderson's book, The Great Dictator. I read that and thought, "Yeah, I'm going to try it like this." Because I was making enough money from my books at that point to be able to pay somebody to do it. And obviously it's not cheap. It is more expensive hiring somebody than it is using software, but it definitely pays off for me because it means that I write more efficiently and it also means that I know I can carry on writing for years because I'm not going to hurt my shoulder.

James Blatch: You could presumably use software just to do a raw speech-to-text and then you can go in and add the punctuation?

Rachel McLean: You could, absolutely. And if you don't write too much dialogue and your sentences are longer than mine, my sentences are very short. I have a lot of punctuation in my fiction. I do use that for non-fiction. I'm working on a non-fiction book at the moment and I'm using software for that because it's much more straightforward. There's much less punctuation, no dialogue obviously. I find that works there.

James Blatch: Having said that, we use transcription services, and there's quite a lot on the internet now. You don't even necessarily need an individual. is the one we use, but there's plenty of others and they can do pretty good rates.

Let's talk about the giveaway. You've done a PDF very helpfully for listeners of The Self-Publishing Show. I've had a look at it. It looks great as well. I think you put together partly attitude and mindset and partly some practical steps, and we've called it 5 Steps. So if you want to get it, it's That's the digit five and steps, all one word.

Tell us a little bit about this handout.

Rachel McLean: This goes through the five things that I did to go from being somebody who sold a few books a day to a few thousand books a day. And the five main things that I focused on. The first thing, and I think everything else comes from this, is your mindset. You've got to think like a professional. You've got to expect that people will want to buy your work, your books, and you've got to seek out people who also think like that so that you can be inspired by them.

The second one was research, and this was what I spent a lot of time doing before I sat down and wrote a word of crime. I researched the genre, the tropes, the market, and I spent years before that researching advertising and marketing and craft as well. I've got a whole shelf full of craft books, as I'm sure many of us have.

And then that leads on into the third step which is craft. What my focus was wasn't just on improving my craft but also on making that very targeted to what readers expected in my genre. So for example, I put quite a lot of work into identifying exactly what makes something a page-turner. What are the characteristics of a book that you don't want to put down? And I identified a few things like ... I mean, short chapters is one. I get a lot of people who email me saying, "I took this to bed. I was just going to read one chapter and then I read 20." Because they just think, "One more chapter, it'll only take me five minutes."

Short sentences, prose that doesn't draw attention to itself and that lets the reader focus on the story and the characters rather than the prose itself.

And then the fourth step is actually putting the book out there in the world. Whether that's indie or looking for a publisher or an agent, it's about packaging up your book in a way that makes it look like a professional product. It's no longer your baby. It's now something that other people will think of as theirs. And for me that meant obviously the cover and the blurb, making those as targeted as I could, doing testing on the blurb. I went through iterations of the blurb on the first book and tested that with ads to see what worked.

Finally, in the fifth step, and this is something I'm not an expert on yet because it's early days for me, is maintenance. Maintaining a long-term author career, not just in terms of the marketing and reader engagement and keeping those fans loyal but also in terms of your own mental and physical health, finding if your niche isn't working for you because you get bored or your burn out, what do you do about that? Avoiding burnout and that kind of thing.

I think there are two aspects to that, the longterm career. I work really hard on reader engagement. I've got a newsletter with about 4000 people on it now and I'm about to do Tammi Labrecque's advanced course to work out how I can boost that. But most of my interaction actually with readers comes on Facebook. I get a lot of comments, people recommending my books to their friends, people engaging with me, asking me questions, that kind of thing. And I probably spend more time on that now than I do writing.

James Blatch: Let me just ask a technical question. Is that a Facebook page, author page or a Facebook group?

Rachel McLean: It's a Facebook page. I keep thinking I should start a Facebook group, but the problem is engagement with my page is so high that I don't want to then move over to something else and have crickets for a while, and I don't want to have to maintain two.

James Blatch: No.

Rachel McLean: I'm constantly in review on that, but it's working for me at the moment so I'm sticking with it.

James Blatch: Yeah. Okay. So that PDF obviously is free. You just go to that website, I'll give it again,, so that's the digit five and steps, all one word. And if that's whetted your appetite, there is a book, 5 Steps to Author Success, and that's available now, Rachel?

Rachel McLean: It's on pre-order now-

James Blatch: Oh, it's on pre-order, okay.

Rachel McLean: ... because I'm almost finished writing it. I get a lot of emails from people who are just starting out in self-publishing or with writing, particularly crime writers, asking me what it is I've done and I spend a lot of time responding to them and listing the things that I've done and sharing tips. And I thought, "Well, if I put all this into a book, it means that I've got somewhere for people to refer to."

So the purpose of the book is to be quite high-level and strategic, so I don't look in detail at the specifics of different ad platforms or that sort of thing, but what I do is I look at those five steps and look at how you approach your career with a view to becoming a full-time author or a bestseller or both, and how you need to change your mindset and sometimes step back from what you're actually writing in order to make plans and be a bit more strategic.

James Blatch: Great. Well, Rachel, congratulations again on your award. Very exciting for you. I mean, congratulations on your amazing career. You've done so well. You've got so much right. I know there's mistakes along the way, there is. In fact, that's part and parcel of being successful. But it looks like a stellar career so far and long may it continue.

Rachel McLean: I do keep pinching myself because a lot of listeners or viewers will not have heard of me because I hardly sell in the US, but in the UK I've currently got eight books in the Kindle Top 100.

James Blatch: Wow.

Rachel McLean: And every time I look at it I think, "At some point, the algorithm's going to realise they've got it wrong and the bottom is going to drop out of this." But I'm still plowing away and writing more books and hoping it continues.

James Blatch: That old imposter syndrome. Everyone has a little bit of that. Okay, Rachel, thank you very much indeed for joining us today and we'll speak again I'm sure.

Rachel McLean: Thank you.

James Blatch: There we go, so Rachel McLean's 5 Steps, a very good structured interview with Rachel. We're talking to her potentially about doing a webinar. More news on that in the next few episodes, so we'll go into more detail on some of those steps and really help you plan setting up a similar foundation for your book sales.

A reminder, you can get the PDF if you go to, digit five then steps. Right, Mark, it's Christmas Eve.

Mark Dawson: It's Christmas time.

James Blatch: It's Christmas time, (singing).

Mark Dawson: Whatever.

James Blatch: We're not going to sing, you'll be pleased to know. I am still wearing my ABBA Christmas jumper, which I love. Actually, just to make this very twee, my wife and I have his and hers matching ABBA Christmas jumpers. That's how we roll. And there's you in your misery Joy Division T-shirt.

Mark Dawson: Well, I'm in the plague house, that's why I'm miserable. Everyone's had COVID now.

James Blatch: Yes, that's not been fun for you. And as it stands now, we're fretting and becoming anxious about skiing and whether we're going to get there or not. France definitely looks like it's going to be a no-go for anyone from Britain. They've specifically set up their regiment of rules so that the British can't-

Mark Dawson: The French don't want the British there, that's unusual.

James Blatch: I know, another war is in the offing. Okay, well, look, I think all that remains for us to say, Mark, is it's a happy Christmas to all our listeners and the team in the background, to Catherine and Mark and John and Alexandra. Have I forgotten anyone in the background?

Mark Dawson: You have, loads, yeah.

James Blatch: I have. I forgot Stuart and John. John Sloane does the video editing, Stuart Grant. Everybody who helps put this show together, thank you very much indeed for all your efforts this year. It's very much appreciated by Mark and me and we want to say happy Christmas to you, and also to you for listening. We have, I think, I was looking at we're knocking on 15,000 listeners a week when the episode is released now, and of course that goes up over time. It's becoming quite a serious platform which we're really pleased about. So, happy Christmas from me, Mark.

Mark Dawson: And a very happy New Year from me. So yeah, see you in 2022.

James Blatch: Bye-bye.

Speaker 1: Get show notes, the podcast archive and free resources to boost your writing career at Join our thriving Facebook group at Support the show at And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author. Publishing is changing so get your words into the world and join the revolution with The Self Publishing Show.

Leave a Review