SPS-329: Self Publishing Fundamentals – with Mark Dawson & James Blatch

James and Mark get back to basics, discussing the fundamentals every new author needs to focus on at the beginning of a writing career.

Show Notes

  • Mistakes new writers make when deciding what to write
  • What is The Book Package and why does it matter?
  • What is your book cover’s number one job?
  • How long should your book’s description be?
  • Should you use a tagline with your description?
  • Why do authors need a newsletter subscriber list?
  • What is a lead magnet and why does it matter?

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

SPS LIVE: Click here to get your tickets for the live event in June 2022 while they last

SPF 101: The doors are now open for the premier course about how to self-publish your book

MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.


SPS-329: Self Publishing Fundamentals - with Mark Dawson & James Blatch
Speaker 1: On this addition of The Self-Publishing Show.

Mark Dawson: Not everyone can do, it took me quite a long time to be able to take criticism. But these days, I don't mind that at all, actually, I find it very helpful.

James Blatch: You're crap.

Mark Dawson: Thank you very much.

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 is The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And me Mark Dawson.

James Blatch: So we have an episode today we are dedicating to self-publishing fundamentals, a good place to start. We haven't done this sort of thing since the early days of the show, when we used to do a lot about mailing lists and everything, the bits and pieces that you should have in place. But it's so important to have a solid platform on which to build. And the earlier you grasp all this, the better. You might be further down the line, but I think some of the fundamentals we're going to talk about today, will be useful. But before all of that, Marcus, we have a bit of housekeeping.

Mark Dawson: Yes, James, make your bed, it's filthy. No, so we have a Patreon subscriber, so thank you very much to Eleanor Ball from Derbyshire in the UK, who has joined the several hundred people who are very generous and support us on Patreon and support the podcast. So thank you very much to Eleanor and thank you to everyone else who continues to help us get this show out on Fridays. We haven't missed one yet, have we? In 300 and how many episodes.

James Blatch: Oh no, we've come close a few times. It is fraught at the moment. I know we're busy at both ends. You've got a house guests, your Ukrainian... I also don't like using the word refugee, but people have been displaced from their homes in Ukraine and are living-

Mark Dawson: Yes, certainly they are refugees, but we call them guests.

James Blatch: Guests.

Mark Dawson: So they are our Ukrainian guests or our new friends as I call them.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, it's going quite well. We have, so it's Oxana and Roman, so a mum and son. And they've been here a week and it was Roman's first day at school today, so he's gone to the same school that my son, Samuel, goes to, in the same class. And the school been amazing, they've really pushed the boat out for him.

There's a Russian speaker, one of the teachers, and I think she was with him all morning as he got settled in and he just did a half day, then went home. But from what I've been told, he came back really happy. He doesn't speak English. So new school, dressed up in a new uniform, in a different country with no one, he doesn't know anybody apart from Samuel. And it seems like he did really well, so that's really great to hear.

James Blatch: That's really excellent and well done to the school. Well done to you in fact and Lucy for taking that on, that's a lot on. Yeah, Ukraine's still going along, my TikTok account still is something that I tuned into obviously, because I'm military aviation. There's a lot going on military wise in Ukraine. I hate to say that I'm exploiting the war for... I'm just covering it, because it's something I'm interested in. The people I think, interested in military aviation read up on all the details.

Things fall into your lap occasionally. Yesterday I did a piece on how feasible it would be to basically, give the Ukrainian Air Force Western fighters, like the Typhoon, the F15, the F16, because as an outsider, I would've thought virtually impossible, they're very complicated these machines, you can't hop out from one into another and expect to operate all the weapons systems.

But Greg Bagwell, who's a very senior Air marshal, I knew him when he was just a group captain. He wrote an article yesterday saying, "Actually, it is feasible and it would only take a few weeks to convert from a Sukhoi or a MIG into one of the Western fighters. So I did that yesterday, got quite a bit of traffic on that.

And then this morning, the UK foreign minister, Liz Truss, said for the first time, any Western leader, "I think we should be giving war planes to the Ukraines." So today's one has really gone well for me on TikTok, because I've followed that up. Although TikTok, I have noticed more than any other social media platform is this short attention span of people. So most people have said, "This is ridiculous. You can't just go from a MIG to an F15." I said, "Well, look at my previous post." And then the next person says, "You can't just go from a MIG to an F15." I said, "Well, look what Greg Bagwell says."

Mark Dawson: I don't think people look at the comments though, do they? I think it's unusual. I'm no power user, far from it, I look at TikTok now and again, but to actually look at the comments of something, even on yours, I look at yours on occasion, because I enjoy seeing how people are battering you.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: But most people, I don't think look at the comments.

James Blatch: No.

Mark Dawson: So they won't have known what you did yesterday.

James Blatch: No.

Mark Dawson: It's just serving more video content after more video content and not necessarily linking back to what you've done before.

James Blatch: Yeah. Anyway...

Mark Dawson: It's frustrating, but anyway.

James Blatch: Yeah, it is. It's an interesting experience. I am enjoying it and I need to do a few more book linked things soon. Okay. Right. We are going to move on to today's topic.

There's no interview today. Mark and I are going to talk through some of the fundamentals that you must have in place to be a commercial success as a writer, we believe. Actually, before we start on the notes that you and I've put together here, Mark, I just want to talk about something that's happened to me since I've published my novel, which is a few people, friends have inevitably said that thing, that friends say to you when you've written a book is, "Oh, that I think there's a book in me, right? "There's a book in everyone, right?"

So people say that. One of my friends has actually started writing, which is good. But something I have noticed is when you are at the very beginning of your writing career, if you decide that you want to be a writer, I think most of the time people think that what they want to write is literary fiction. And they don't think very obviously about genre fiction.

I'm not quite sure why this is, but just seems in the conversations I have, everyone describes the book that they're going to write. And it's a long rambling saga about a man who spent his life searching for the thing that was actually in front of him, right at the beginning of the book. They don't really talk about writing a spy book or a romance or so and so and so on.

But in the self-publishing world, it's very difficult, I think to be a very successful literary fiction author. It's much more likely that you are going to earn your bread and learn your trade as a genre fiction author. Now that might sound really obvious to you and me and to lots of people, but actually in the conversations I have with people outside our world, who want to start writing, it's not obvious at all to them. And they think that they're probably going to write this novel, it's going to be a bit like Ian McEwan or something and I will have the secret juice of how they're going to be commercially successful selling that. And it's worth just pointing out, isn't there?

You need to start thinking about genre fiction, I think.

Mark Dawson: I think so too. I probably started off that way, thinking I was going to write something that would win prizes and was quickly disabused of that notion when it just didn't come naturally to me and those books in my age, traditionally published books were just pretty dreadful really. It was only when I got into writing the genre fiction that I enjoyed the writing process more and probably not by coincidence started selling more books as well. So I don't know why that is, I mean, I think you could speculate that it could be the people who think about writing without really getting into what needs to be done, tend to be perhaps the kinds of people who are a little bit more head in the clouds, maybe.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: And then perhaps that's the kind of thing that they like to read. They might not even admit to reading and enjoying the new Lee Child book or the new Barbara Freethy or whatever it might well be.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: That they don't feel that those kinds of books are the kinds of things that they would want to tell their friends about, which is a bit silly.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: But it's hard to say really, isn't it?

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: I don't know any successful... Well, no, I don't know many successful literary fiction writers who self-publish. It is possible, I mean, the principles that we teach in the 101 course they're applicable to all genres. This is not a course that's just for romance writers or thriller writers, it's applicable to people who want to sell books full stop.

But I think where I know the audiences are from literary fiction, are smaller in the self-publishing space than they are for the genres. And I think it is set up so it's a little easier to find readers in those genres. And it's more difficult to sell books in literary fiction, not impossible, but it's definitely more difficult.

James Blatch: It is an interesting thing, isn't it? This difference between literary fiction and fiction, and we've talked in the past about genre fiction, about defining it. And if you look at the Booker Prize and probably the Pulitzer might be the same in America, but the Booker Prize here in the UK, it is generally filled with people writing literary fiction, and those authors get quoted in the papers a lot.

But actually, if you said to somebody on the street, "Name 10 authors." They probably might struggle to name 10, but they're likely to come up, I think with John LeCarre and Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie and they're all genre fiction authors, right? Barbara Cartland, even Charles Dickens, maybe, I don't know. No, maybe not Dickens, maybe he's literary, but-

Mark Dawson: Well, no-

James Blatch: Conan Doyle. I mean, if you come up with the most famous authors from history, there's lots and lots.

Mark Dawson: J. K. Rowling.

James Blatch: Yeah, lots and lots of genre fiction authors there. This is not something we need to be snobby about. But I see it is something that, I don't know, for whatever reason... Anyway, so understanding what genre fiction is, it's a really good place to start if you haven't started writing or you're playing about with writing or playing with ideas. And I think what's the best advice Mark, once you... I think reading into the genre's a really, really important thing, isn't it?

Mark Dawson: Yeah. It's possible to reverse engineer a genre, that you don't read, because you want to write something in that genre, because you think it's commercial, but it is possible to do that. I'm not entirely sure I'd recommend it. I think I've said this before, I tried after my first two books bombed when they were published by Macmillan, I thought, "Well, I'll write something deliberately commercial." I couldn't be more commercial and I found something else that my editor had published and I read it and I thought, "This is rubbish, I can definitely write better than this." And it was completely wrong of me to say that, because I couldn't write that book, which is a fast-paced read, is exciting, it definitely ticked all the boxes, I couldn't write that.

And the fact that I was going to having to force myself to write something that I wasn't familiar with, made the whole writing process miserable, so I didn't even enjoy it. So I didn't enjoy it, the book was even more rubbish than the first two. It never got published. Thankfully, I haven't got it anymore. I've only found success when I've of edged into genres that I do enjoy reading and there is also a market for those books amongst readers. And I found that sweet spot and I've stayed, with small diversions into different connected genres, but I've stayed in that rough area ever since.

James Blatch: Yeah, okay. Well look, let's move forward then. So let's assume that you have started writing. You've finished your draft, you've done your editing, we're not going to talk about that process here today, we're going to talk about marketing. And in this episode, we're going to talk about the platform that you need to build.

We're going to start with what we call, the book package. So this is an expression I really got to hear most by watching Susie Kaye Quinn's course, How to Write a Bestseller. She talks about the book package. What is that? Well, it's the cover, the blurb, the taglines.

Each one of those, carries an important task in making sure your book is going to get in front of the right readers and be successful. And if you get one of them wrong or you get them slightly wrong, that can be the difference between any money you put into paid advertising, for instance, working or not working. So we're going to start with the cover.

What is the number one role of the cover, Mark Dawson?

Mark Dawson: Well, it depends what the context is, but if you're in a bookshop, it's to get someone to reach up, pick the book up and look at it. If you are on a social media platform, it's to stop them scrolling. If it's on Amazon, it's to encourage a click, it'll be the first thing that they see. And then closely followed by things like title, author name, all of that, certainly on Amazon. But it's the first thing that they see, so it's the most important at that particular stage, is to get someone to investigate more and they won't do that if your cover doesn't work.

James Blatch: Okay. Let's say you like reading spy thrillers, and you go onto Amazon, so the role of the cover to get you to click, to get you to show interest, is it's got to say to somebody, "This is a spy thriller book."

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: It's a really fundamental thing, it has to say it and I know it sounds really obvious, but you'll be surprised how often we see in our groups, people posting in covers saying, "I've written this book, what do you think about the cover?" And people will start saying, "Well, I think it doesn't look right here and there." But the fundamental thing is, at a glance, within less than a second, Stuart Bache says it's less than a second, does this say to somebody who reads that sort of book, "This is one of those books."?

So it's a really basic thing the cover needs to do, it needs to say to somebody, "You like reading bully romance, you like reading MI6 thrillers, you like reading science fiction, that's what this book is." At a glance, it's got to say that.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. And also just to get a bit more context of that, is if you are advertising it, then you've chosen keywords that will ensure that book or that cover is shown to people who like those, who have an interest in those keywords. So if I'm bidding on spy thriller as a keyword and my cover does not look like a spy thriller, then that's a wasted click.

At that point you know, if you look at the equation, you know that the person who's clicked on or who's been shown that ad, is someone who Amazon or Facebook knows is interested in that particular keyword. So to complete your part of the equation, you've got to present them with something that meets those expectations. If you don't do that, if there's any incongruence, then you won't get a click. Or if you do get a click, it's unlikely to lead to a sale, because they'll find something that doesn't match up with quite what they're expecting.

James Blatch: You're going to hear this as a recurring theme, that meeting the expectations and aligning, aligning is a really good word to use here. So I would say when you talk to your cover designer, or if you do it yourself, remember that some of the details that you might think are important in telling the story are not relevant to the cover. The cover has this job to do, of simply saying to somebody that this is the type of book they like to read. So I've recently actually, I've changed the cover of my book, The Final Flight, the first cover I loved, it was brilliant, it'll sit on my wall, I'm going to order a framed copy to go there.

But I noticed having marketed it for quite a while now through Facebook Ads and looking at the charts, looking at the also boughts, the people buying my book, bought a certain type of book, and they all had a very similar cover that didn't look like mine. It always had a vehicle on the front with helicopters, the helicopters prominent of the ships and fighter pilots and fighters whatever. Whereas I had a bit more of a thriller like cover, so I went back to Stuart, told him this, he agreed completely and has done me a fabulous looking new cover that fits much better into that genre expectation.

That's a key thing that you need to do. Another thing I'm going to say, is your cover must look pro. And sometimes people will upload their covers into our groups and say, "What do you think of this?" And they'll get some hard truth, won't they, Mark? Because it's important this.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, it is. I'm not having a go at the author's who posted, because they're often too close to the project to be able to be objective for bad things. But you do see people posting covers that absolutely will not sell them books. Although, I always encourage people to be kind when they feedback with their thoughts, you'd be doing them a disservice if you didn't say honestly, that you didn't think that this cover is going to sell that many books, because they think that it will.

I've been in this situation before, I've definitely had in the early days, BS before Stuart, I had covers that I thought looked great. And I'd specified exactly what I wanted and the artists had done a really good job in delivering to that brief, but they didn't look anything like the... They didn't hit the tropes, they didn't match expectations that readers would expect to see in covers for those kinds of books.

As a result, it doesn't matter how good my advertising was, you can't sell it. It's too much of a hurdle to get over, so you have to meet the expectations. And going into a group like the SPF community or any of our paid groups that come with the courses, you will get really objective, sometimes brutal, and that's not a bad thing, criticism on what is right or wrong about your cover. I had something the other day, I can't remember who, I think it actually, may have been on our podcast last week. I listened to Benedict Brown and he said one of the things that you really need to do as a... One of the things he learned when he did his degree, was the ability to take criticism.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: And it is really important and not everyone can do it. It certainly took me quite a long time to be able to take criticism, but these days, I don't mind that at all, actually, I find it very helpful.

James Blatch: You're crap.

Mark Dawson: Thank you very much. I know I am. Yeah, absolutely.

James Blatch: Well, you took that well. Well done.

Mark Dawson: I did take that well.

James Blatch: Yes, so it's got to look pro and our top tips we'll leave you with on covers. So I think I would just say just to follow that is, don't be too prescriptive with your cover designer about this. Give them obviously, the gist of the book and the genres absolutely critical for them. Give them some parallel authors, but let them do the rest of it. Don't don't come back and say, "Well, no, I'd like three people on the cover, because there's always going to be three people in most of my scenes." That's irrelevant.

Mark Dawson: No, that's nonsense. I know that I won't broach any confidences here, but I've spoken to a few cover designers over the years and I know that's one of the things that they hate.

James Blatch: Yes.

Mark Dawson: And it is stupid, because I've seen, again I'm not going to be too specific here, but there was a cover in the community not long ago, swords and sorcery fancy cover. And there was quite a long discussion about whether the sword was long enough and as Stuart said, "No, the reader will not bother with that." You get even stupider sometimes with the character in the book has blue eyes and the model on the cover has brown eyes.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: And really there is no point at all in worrying about that, because just think about it as a reader, if the cover's done its job, is if you actually buy the book, right? Once you've bought the book, you're into the world, and then it doesn't really matter. You won't look at the cover and go, "Oh, do you know what? I'm really disgusted that, that cover does not reflect exactly how the character is described in the book."

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: It's not relevant. At that point, the cover's done its job and the baton has now been passed to you as the author. So it's up to you at that point, to keep the reader reading through the book and then enjoying it enough to buy the next one, the cover at that point is pretty much irrelevant. So in fact, you've actually wasted someones time on it.

James Blatch: You barely see it these days, when you read on a Kindle, I mean, it's a hazy black and white.

Mark Dawson: No, you don't.

James Blatch: If you set it to the cover, which have to do on a Kindle, you might not ever see it again.

Mark Dawson: That's true. Yeah, I agree.

James Blatch: Okay. So to sum up, fit in, don't stand out is something that Stuart, one of his mantras that says, people say, "Oh, I want my cover to look different, to stand out." And actually Stuart says, "No, you don't really, you want your cover to fit in and be immediately identified as something that someone who rips through other series, if they read Mark, they rip through Mark's books, your covers should look a bit like that." Not too much like Mark's, he'll get angry.

And how do you make sure that's the case? Look at the top tens and the genre you're writing, look at the big authors who you are emulating, who you think readers would like to come onto your books and see what their covers are like. That's how you're going to tell what's happening at the moment. And of course, that does change over time, trends change.

Mark Dawson: But not as much as you think it does.

James Blatch: No. True.

Mark Dawson: If you look at some of them in my genre, with the man walking into the distance, that's been constant for years now. Ever since I've been writing that hasn't really changed much. So yeah, things do, they gradually pivot over time, but it's glacial.

James Blatch: Yeah. I think maybe in some of those wacky sub-genres, the anime inspired sub-genres, I think sometimes those trends change quite quickly, but yes, in the biggest sub genres, they don't.

Okay, let's talk about the blurb, try and do this one a bit more quickly, because we've got to try and keep this into about 45 minutes. So the blurb again Mark, I'm going to say from the beginning, we're going to repeat ourselves here. The blurb needs to be crystal clear about the genre of the book, it's a really important thing it does.

You almost need to say this is an M16 thriller book. This is a romance book set in a high school. You need to tell someone that they are in the right place, if they like these sorts of books. After you've done that, as well as reestablishing the genre again, that's when you can set some conflict and tension. But one of the mistakes I made early on with the earlier drafts, is not to end up rambling in your blurb.

This is not a place for an essay about your book.

Mark Dawson: No, definitely not. And again, we see that quite often when people post their blurbs for comments and often they'll be too long. You'll definitely need to pay attention to that. It shouldn't be an essay.

We're looking at one, two, maybe three paragraphs and short punchy sentences and all that good stuff. But yeah, difficult to do, it's not easy to write a blurb, I struggle. In fact, I have someone in Salisbury actually, who has worked professionally for the big four before and she does those for me now. And does a much better job than I can, because that's not one of my skills.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: I can do it, but not as well as she can.

James Blatch: Very few people don't struggle with blurbs. I think it's very difficult to go from writing a hundred and whatever, thousand word novel, and then sum it up in 215 words.

Mark Dawson: You can deconstruct. I mean, a good tip again, is to look at the ones that are selling in your genre or an author that you think your books are a bit like, maybe cut and paste them. Obviously, don't copy them, but you can cut and paste them, stick them in a document somewhere and then study them, just see exactly what those blurb writers have done, what they have in common with the blurbs across different authors.

Those kinds of family of words, is there an average word length? Maybe, you want to stick to that? Don't go too long, don't be too short. You can certainly learn and teach yourself. But again, it is something that you'll have to work at, it's not going to be easy.

James Blatch: Okay. So our tips for the blurb, must reinforce the genre, sub-genre, short, pithy is better than long and rambling, obviously. Give a reason to read some sort of tension and conflict there, some intrigue, and again, reinforce the genre again, that's something you need to do just to let somebody know this is the book that they will like reading.

Now, taglines, not everyone uses taglines. You may not want to use one on the front cover, but they will come in useful down the line. They'll come in useful actually in advertising. Susie Kaye Quinn's advice on this is to write your tagline before you start writing your book. In fact, Susie's advice is to get your whole book package in place before you start writing a book, to keep you focused on delivering the book that your tagline and your sub-genre expectations are. So taglines are really good things to come up with. And I agree with Susie actually, about coming up with them at the beginning of the book, remember what this book is about.

Do you use them on front covers, Mark? Have you used taglines before?

Mark Dawson: No, I don't. I don't think I ever have. I'll have my name and say, John Milton thriller will be the... And maybe on social media, X million number of copies sold, so will be the kind of the things that I'd have on the cover. If you've got a really amazing tagline, that's really triple A, then you can use it or you could put it in the blurb or you could use it on both, if you're saying that's really, really, really good. But I think taglines are even harder to write than blurbs, because you are trying to write something in probably 10 words that sums up something fairly fundamental about your book and hints at hidden depths, it's really difficult to do that.

But again, I just actually pulled up the... Helen is the name of my blurb writer, and she's just provided me one for The Avenger, which is the new Isabella Rose book. And so she wrote the blurb for me, which is four paragraphs. I could tell you how many words it is, it is 187 words. So pretty short, a little longer than normal, but still pretty short. And then she gives me four strap lines and things like, "In a world of deep fakes and deception, who can you really trust? They can run, they can hide, but can they ever really escape?"

So it's thinking about those ways in a movie poster, where you will see those kinds of things quite often. And they're useful, but they're not essential and they're very difficult to write, but definitely worth having a go.

James Blatch: Yes. So even if you don't want to use it on the cover, definitely as Mark says, worth coming up to focus your mind and you'll find when you come to write your ad copy, which is a bit further down the line, very useful to go back to those taglines.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. Useful, very useful for ad copy. Absolutely, yep.

James Blatch: Okay. So to sum up those on the book package, always look at the charts to make sure you match your genre and reader expectations. And our top tip from Susie Kaye Quinn on this, is to start with the book package before you've even written the book.

One thing I'll finish on with that section, is to imagine you are the reader who likes reading a certain type of book, everything you do, whether it's the cover, the tagline, the blurb, your advertising copy, does it all match? Is it all aligned with each other? Or is there at one point a bit of a moment where they're going to go, "Oh, this is not really what I thought it was?" That's what you want to avoid. So sometimes that idea that you're going to be different here, do things differently, can be a trap that won't serve you well.

So that is the book package, Mark, which we've talked about here. If you want more details on that, I would recommend Susie's best seller course, How to Write a Best Seller, which you'll find I think, at But obviously overall, the book package and everything you need for marketing is our 101 course, which is open at the moment, Let's talk about something else that should be there for those early authors getting started and it's probably never too early to start thinking about this.

It's a building block of an indie authors marketing network set up, if you like, foundation and that is a mailing list. I didn't really think about mailing lists before I came into this world. I realised when you started talking about it, that I was on a tonne of them, but I don't know how I thought that happened, whether I thought it was just Jeff Bezos wrote to me occasionally. But then I was introduced this whole world of automations and sequences and lead magnets. And we are going to just deconstruct that for the last part of this podcast.

First of all, Mark, I want to ask you, how important has your mailing list been in your success?

Mark Dawson: It's very, very important. I sent an email out today, the Isabella book is available on the non Amazon platforms today. So I have it out for three or four days before I take it off and put it exclusive to Amazon. So I want to tell readers who don't buy on Amazon, if they want to buy it, they need to buy it now, so sent that out today.

Then in a week's time, I'll send out the one saying that it's available on Amazon. And then it'll be around about the start of the month, I'll send out my monthly newsletter. So I'm contacting my readers there, three times in the space with about 10 days, which is more than I normally do, but over the course of the year, they're not getting bombarded with emails. And generally speaking, I think most of my readers, well, I'll occasionally get emails from people saying that they enjoy the updates, so it's a very important tool. It enables you to tell readers when something is available for them to read.

And also, it's good to get out of the mindset or get into a slightly different mindset, you're not sending emails, that are going to annoy people, that shouldn't be what your aim is, obviously. You're sending emails to tell them about something that you think they might enjoy. So you're doing them a favour, rather than being a pain. And again, it took me a while to realise that and to not be shy about, I'm emailing people. I used to be very shy before, my finger would hover over the MailChimp send button and I'd be like, "I don't really want to send these emails, because they're going to hate me." But if they hate me, then they can easily unsubscribe.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: Again, I'm not unique, I'm sure most people will feel this way. And also, most people, especially if they follow some of the best practise when it comes to email, then it's not an imposition. You're bringing something welcome into the inbox of people who obviously like you, because they've signed up for your mailing list. So it's good to get away from the embarrassment, potential embarrassment and get into a different way of looking at things.

James Blatch: Yeah. And we'll talk about some of the detail in a second, but don't be afraid of allowing people to unsubscribe, it's part and parcel of a mailing list. It has to be there when you use a proper mailing list provider, there'll be an unsubscribe button. And you can point people towards it, because I saw Rachel McClean actually, who's done a presentation for us in the past and been on this podcast, a Kindle storyteller award winner, she was saying, "Your quality of this is more important than quantity. It's the one area where saying I've got 10,000 on my list is almost meaningless, if you've just trapped people with all sorts of gifts to get them on your list. And they're not quality people, who don't want to be there."

Mark Dawson: It's not meaningless, it's actually bad.

James Blatch: Bad, yeah.

Mark Dawson: It has a meaning, it's not going to do you any favours at all, because you'll be paying your provider per subscriber effectively. And if they're not quality subscribers, you're sending reputation with that provider will be poor, because you're going to get lots of unsubscribes, you're getting low levels of engagement. These are the all things that will suppress your emails rather than promote them. So yeah, it's not a good idea at all.

James Blatch: Another really important thing to say at the beginning of talking about mailing lists, is that mailing lists are the only thing that you can properly own about your audience. Amazon have a lot of information on the people who like your books and you can access some of it through the search terms, once you've started advertising with them. But it's very limited, they're not going to hand over the names and email addresses of the people who read your books, however valuable they would be.

It's a bit like being a trad publisher in the 1970s, if you wanted to get hold of your readers, how would you even begin to do that? Well, in the modern world of indie writing, this is how we do it, we do it by establishing a mailing list and encouraging our readers to join it.

And then you own that, Mark, right? That's yours.

Mark Dawson: You do. It's a very, very valuable asset. I think it probably is the most valuable thing that you'll have, aside from your IP and the things that you're selling, is going to be the best tool, better than paid ads, the mailing list will be the best tool that you have in order to just send an email, make sales, make money.

Once you realise that and you see how powerful they are, any delay in starting to build one becomes quite frustrating. And certainly back in the early days, as I've mentioned before, I was not fast enough in building my mailing list and starting to find subscribers. Certainly spun my wheels a little bit longer than I needed to and probably missed a few months head start. But yeah, it's important.

James Blatch: So what do we use our mailing list for? Well, we use them for launching our books, we can use them for getting reviews, which are very important at the beginning. And we can turn some of those readers who are casually acquainted with us into fans of us, because they feel a personal contact with us. And some of those fans will become very loyal, super fans, if you like. It's also a place, and I found this useful, to find technical readers of your book, people with experience.

Mark Dawson: Mm-hmm.

James Blatch: I know you've had the same experience, haven't you, Mark?

Mark Dawson: Mm-hmm.

James Blatch: People who know about the murky world that you write in and have probably lived some of those lives, incredibly useful and valuable for you when you're writing your next book.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, it's really, really valuable. I've just been through that process with sending a book out for comments to the advanced readers. And one of my readers is or was fairly senior in the American embassy in Moscow. So if I'm writing about what it was like to be in Moscow in the nineties, and I have done, I've got lots wrong, because he's said, "Well, actually, that wasn't how it was."

Also beyond that, he's given me some anecdotes that I've been able to get into the books before, things like what was it like to be an American working in Russia as it came out from behind the Iron Curtain and those kinds of things, the FSB following him, these things really happen. And that's really great and some of these stories, especially when they're true and you lace them carefully into a book, then readers can sense that you haven't Googled that, there's an authenticity about it, that is really compelling. I wouldn't be able to have that detail without the readers that do me the favour of feeding back on early books.

James Blatch: I'm in the same position. My second book is set in California in the 1960s. I'm not American, I've never lived in the States. Some of the cultural stuff that just won't occur to me, some of the language. I've got three, two former military pilots and one person who works as an engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, all three of them are reading and feeding back to me and I'm finding that incredibly valuable. And that's come through my mailing list. So how do you build a mailing list? Well, I'm in the process of building mine.

It is tough at the beginning. I'm going to remind you, Mark, it's tough at the beginning, particularly if you only got one book, I don't have what we're going to call a lead magnet. We'll explain that in a second. I only have about 800 names on my list and that's taken a year and a half or so of building, but it is building every month at the moment. How do you do it? Well, you establish your mailing list using one of the platforms that's available. I don't know, what term we use?

Do you call them mailing service providers or mailing list providers? I don't know.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, email service provider usually, but yeah, it's something along those lines.

James Blatch: And the most famous one in the world is MailChimp, which for a long time, had a very generous starter package, where you didn't even pay at the beginning. And you got some level of automation to use. Automation is, once you start adding names to your list, they can automatically be sent some emails from you as you write in advance. There are others now, mailing lists might not be as attractive as it used to be with its pricing. MailerLite, I know is a fan favourite in the SPF community, a lot of people use MailerLite, I've used it a bit, but it's not my main one.

I use something called ConvertKit, which is an odd name, but that's their name. ConvertKit. And actually, there's others, we should also mention Author.Email, Author.Email which has been created by SPF community member, Nick Thacker and others, I believe. So there's lots out there, in fact, there's a very long list if you Google it. But they're the key ones and I think I would urge you to use one of the ones we've mentioned. You're more likely to get help online and help from colleagues here in the community. So once you've got that setup, Mark, you've worked out some of the technical aspects of this.

Where do you get names from, when you first start?

Mark Dawson: There's lots of ways really, but the best way is going to have something at the end of your book that people can learn about what you are offering. Or if you've got nothing to offer, give them a reason to join up for information or community or camaraderie, whatever it is. And that will provide you with your gold standard of email subscribers, because you know that they've bought your book, they've read your book, they've got to the end and they've still given you their email address, that's a really good sign.

There are other ways you can do it. You can advertise, Facebook's really good for finding readers. I mean, they're not going to be as good as the ones that have just read your stuff, because they haven't read it yet. But I've built up, a fairly large chunk of my subscribers came from two or three years of a continuous Facebook campaign that worked pretty well. You can do swaps with other authors, so you could appear on my monthly newsletter.

In fact, you have appeared on my monthly newsletter for when your book launched and you'd have had some readers of mine, who would've bought your book, would've read it, got to the end, signed up. And if you were generous and I noted that you haven't been yet, you could have mentioned my books to your subscribers and then it's reciprocated, so that can work quite well. And even things like, I mean you can, especially in the early days, I did this a bit, and there is art to it and it's not easy, but you somewhere like Twitter, someone engages with a post or TikTok, for example, TikTok, let's be more relevant, you have a TikTok video.

And let's say you are lucky, like you've been a few times and had a million views on a couple of your emails, a couple of your TikToks and there be a good chance then on another video going out to people who might have seen that. Or offer them a free book, a free develop, the one that you're working on, that would be a really good way to accelerate the growth as well.

James Blatch: Yeah.

Mark Dawson: So yeah, there are loads of ways, more ways these days to build lists than they were when I started, which is a good thing, really. It continues to get easier to build your list.

James Blatch: I copied an idea that you had, of putting something at the back of your book that adds to the story, behind the scenes sort of thing you used to get on a DVD. Once you finished watching the film, you could watch the director's commentary and so on or deleted scenes. So I think you created this classified personnel file for your main character, John Milton. I created a couple of vintage looking air accident reports in 1960s for the crashes that were described in my flight. That gave me an email sequence to follow up on as well, some of that stuff. And I think that's worked really well. I'm probably getting in reality, I think I worked out over the year 7% of the people I figured had read the book of moving onto the mailing list, which is a pretty good conversion rate.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. That's pretty good.

James Blatch: Conversion rates online are very small. Most people on bigger businesses talk about less than 1%, those percentages of getting people to do something is something. So that's worked really well for me. I did establish my mailing list before I published my first book.

We do get asked this a lot, when should I start our mailing list? And I think you should do it before you publish your first book.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, definitely.

James Blatch: Primarily, because you get quite a learning curve out the way.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: And you're not faffing about that once your book's out there, it gives you something to put at the back of the book when you first launch it. So there are lots of reasons for getting on board and learning the mailing list.

Now this is something that the 101 course excels at, because we have real hand holding, step by step tuition in there of how to do this, how to set this up, how to create those automations, how to make a choice about an email service provider. Tom and I and others have done those particular modules and I know you've helped out there as well.

Those fundamentals, those building blocks, are the ones that we've wrapped up. Now, we're going to talk about today, obviously there is more to building your platform, but that's what I wanted to do for this episode, Mark. I wanted to talk about the book package, and the mailing list, because I think from where I am now, which is book one, on the edge of book two, at the beginning of my career, looking back over the last couple of years, those are the two things that I wish I'd known more about when I started.

Mark Dawson: Yeah. They are very important. And certainly, the first bit is, that's the shiny packaging that goes around your book, but one thing you can't substitute is good writing and good and good stories. So I think it's pretty easy to sell anything once online. I think, with the right ad, you can sell anything really and it's not that hard. But if what you are selling is not up to scratch, then you'll never sell to that person again.

I would very strongly recommend that we write our best books, make them as good as we can. And then when they're ready and we're confident that they are what we think that they are, what we're selling to readers, is then to find the ways to make sure that we made them attractive and then get them into hands of people who are going to enjoy them. And then hopefully, they come back for book two and book three and book four. And then before you know it, you've got a thousand fans and you potentially have a career as a writer, which is cool, isn't it?

James Blatch: Which is very cool. Yeah. And that's what we want to hear. Okay, so where can you find out more details about the 101 course? That is it, Mark. We have ratcheted up 40 minutes with just you and me talking, just like the old days, we used to do this more.

Mark Dawson: We never talk anymore, James.

James Blatch: We don't talk. You're so busy, I'm so busy. I'm going to Majorca to cycle up hill, I may not survive this weekend.

Mark Dawson: I know.

James Blatch: A lot of hill climbing to do.

Mark Dawson: Okay.

James Blatch: But if I do, I will see you next week.

Mark Dawson: Will do, that's ominous. So if you don't, it'll be me and John, so I can't... And God knows what that will be like. Not enjoyable, potentially.

James Blatch: I think it'll be hilarious. I'll listen to it from a hospital bed. Okay.

Mark Dawson: A book? What's a book?

James Blatch: Yes. Thank you very much indeed. A package, he'll assume, is like wrapping it.

Mark Dawson: Yes.

James Blatch: Like a Christmas present. That's it. Poor old John. Thank you very much indeed. All that remains for me to say, is it's a goodbye from him.

Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Bye.

James Blatch: Goodbye.

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