SPS-335: Publishing the New Poirot – with Sophie Hannah
Currently teaching a writing course at Cambridge University, Sophie Hannah discusses the publishing routes available to new authors.
- The point at which Sophie realised she could actually make a living from her writing
- How Sophie managed to take over a series from the bestselling novelist of all time
- The gnocchi method: Sophie’s unique approach to writing a first draft/outline
- The importance of critical feedback and good publishing relationships
- Why Sophie is confident she’ll be self-publishing at some point in the future
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.
SPS LIVE! 2022: Join us for two days of sessions packed with strategies, tips and actionable insights, and network with your fellow authors (and special guests!) at the Self Publishing Party. There’ll be no better place for an indie author come June 28th and 29th. For more information and what the two-day event offers click here.
Can’t make it to London? The SPS LIVE! Digital ticket is available here at a special pre-release price.
SPS-335: Publishing the New Poirot - with Sophie Hannah
James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It's The Self-Publishing Show with me, James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: And for those of you watching on our YouTube channel, Mark Dawson is in a new location. You're in the barn.
Mark Dawson: I am, yes. I'm in the barn and it's lovely. It's a beautiful sunny day in England, when we are recording this. So it's very warm. And in front of me, I have the River Avon through a great big glass window. And there are some swans going around, and there's a moorhen that I think is making a nest. Which is quite nice watching him go backwards and forwards with bits of straw and twigs and things like that. So it's lovely. I'm very pleased to be here.
James Blatch: It'd be quite funny in the next Milton book if us readers notice he starts becoming a bit of an ornithologist.
Mark Dawson: Yes, exactly. Yeah. That's almost certain to be the case. But it's been a been about a year worth of blood, sweat, and tears to get here. But it is worth it. It's really lovely.
James Blatch: And cold, hard cash.
Mark Dawson: Quite a lot of cold, hard cash as well. Yeah, exactly.
James Blatch: The house that John Milton built. It looks lovely and the shot looks great. Sort of almost Kubriskian, Kubrickan. I can't say it Kubrickian. It looks like Stanley Kubrick might, may have done that.
Mark Dawson: Ah right. Okay. Yes. Yeah. So yeah, we are on the mezzanine level, so for the people who are not watching, the ceiling has timber boards. So it does look a little bit like going off to an infinity point, which is-
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: -quite interesting.
James Blatch: Kubrickian. Great. Okay. Well, welcome to your barn. And it's a busy time coming up for us here at the Self-Publishing Show because we have our live event. And I'm going to give you some information, some particularly interesting information if you're not coming to the event in just a moment. Before then, Mark, I think we should welcome some new Patreon supporters, which is your job in your new barn.
Mark Dawson: Yes. So I don't have locations of these general souls. But it's Chelsea M. Cameron and Sean O'Connor, you have supporting the show on Patreon and another link of Patreon. Let's test you with that one. What's the link?
James Blatch: It is Patreon or patreon.com/selfpublishingshow.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, so we are very grateful. Still got hundreds of people that actually support the show. And it's really gratefully received, all the help that they've been able to give us over the years. Makes it easier for us to put on the slick well-oiled machine, such as it is.
James Blatch: Yes, it is. And you get an opportunity. If you are a gold subscriber, you will go into the draw for a copy of, or licence to Ads for Authors in August when it's going to be open again. So we have our show, our live show in London, the Self-Publishing Show 2022. The second time we've done it. It will be the biggest indie conference in Europe, inspired by our friends over at 20 books who put on fabulous events. I went to the Madrid one very recently, last weekend as I'm speaking. But our event will have at least 700 people. The capacity is very close to that in the hall. Once we've added in the staff and people backstage. So we're into the last few numbers of tickets. As we speak, it is possible to buy a ticket. I noticed on the website today. But that will change in the next few days.
So if you wanted a ticket go to Self-Publishing Show, so selfpublishingformula.com/splive. However, for those of you not coming, it's not like a live stream. It won't be live-streamed. Also I think the quality of live streaming's variable from the conferences I've been a part of. But we are packaging each session up professionally, as it expects from Self-Publishing Formula. We always have very high production values in the stuff that we do. So it'll be professionally shot, recorded sound-wise, packaged up into easily digestible bits, and put together as a bit like an online course afterwards. And we are going to have some really good sessions here. Sessions with actionable insights, as well as author inspiration moments in there as well. And you can get all of that for the absolute bargain price of $25. And we've made it as cheap as possible to fund the video production side of things.
But that will go up after the show. So the show is on the 28th and 29th. If you buy the digital ticket after the 29th, from the 30th of June onwards, it's going to be $40, 4, 0 dollars. But until then you can get it for $25. The price of a few cups of coffee. If you go to selfpublishingformula.com/digital. So that's the URL. You need to buy a digital ticket to the show forward slash digital, and it'll be delivered. I think last time they were really quick. It was like three days after the conference, they delivered all the material and we were able to get it up, live within a week. We'll aim to do that again. But I can't guarantee cause we're doing two days rather than one day this year. So there's a fair amount of video editing and we want it to look good. But it will be, I would say, certainly would say within 10 days.
Mark Dawson: The conference, I would say, so if you're thinking about you want to see what it would look like. If you go to that link that James just read out there is a highlights video that you'll see there. It's really well put together package. We don't do the filming or the editing. We actually got some pros to do it for us and it did look great. So please ignore the really shocking picture of me on the front cover. I need to speak to John about that. But-
James Blatch: Looks all right.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. It's an action shot.
James Blatch: Certainly isn't. Something like that. So you'll get the speakers there and you'd also be able to watch the highlights video from the last time. Which will give you an idea of the quality that we try to make sure that the video's produced with. So apart from being a fun thing to watch, there will be things that you can take away from those sessions. People like Joanna Penn and Nick Stephenson, Lucy Score, all the people we mentioned before. Marc Reklau is a late edition. Marc Reklau, a very good presentation in Madrid. We decided that we'd have him on as well. Suzy Quinn, Stuart Bache, Alex Newton from K-Lytics. Several Amazonians before on stage all quite senior. And we've taken questions. So tonnes and terms of stuff that you'll be able to benefit from
And Janet Margo, who also did very good sessions in Madrid. Really actionable insights on that. They went down a storm. So I think it's going to be a really high quality conference, a good balance. So you talk about your pictures, that pen pic of me on the digital page. That for all the world looks like I'm an Assistant England coach very low down in the rankings and in the way the England team work. Or probably the person who looks after the drinks-
Mark Dawson: Yeah. The waterboy.
James Blatch: -during the matches. Yeah. The water boy. Yeah.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: So [inaudible]
Mark Dawson: Yeah. It's going to be good. As we record this, now we just had a meeting talking about last bits and bobs. So I feel reasonably comfortable actually. Catherine's doing a very good job and I feel quite confident that she's on top of it. So all that really remains first is to turn up and spout some nonsense for a bit and then enjoy everybody else. So yeah. It's going to be good event looking forward to it.
James Blatch: Yeah. Catherine has been organising it this year and she's doing a really good job. And in the middle of her organisational stint, she found out she's moving. Her husband's job is changing. He's a farmer, David. Known them for years. He's moving out to Norwich. So I think Catherine's moving like the day after the conference or something. So she's at DEFCON Level One.
Mark Dawson: I'd say. I remember he a farmer. Patrick has problems with farmers, doesn't he?
James Blatch: Yeah, he does. So it's just surprisingly your friends with him. But anyway, she's done a good job. I've got a proposal for off-air. Perhaps about something else we might thinking about doing, another conference. But I'll talk you about that in a minute.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Farming. Farming and self-publishing.
James Blatch: Now this is apropos storytelling. I'm just going to ask you, have you seen Top Gun Maverick yet?
Mark Dawson: No, I haven't. I want to. Literally everyone I know loves it. So I think there's an element of echo chamber that you're almost obliged to love it. But I think the reviews are so strong. So yes, I do want to see it. But I also want to see Top Gun before I see the second one. 'Cause I haven't seen Top Gun for years and Mrs. D will come to the cinema. I would probably be out of the cinema as always see it. The way things are going. But I'd like to see the first one before we see the second one.
James Blatch: Yeah, good. Definitely. I would recommend going to see it. And I think it's interesting one to think about if you're doing sequels and taking stories on. Having that right balance of treating the first one with respect. But then moving the story along. So it becomes its own thing. Which is, I think, what they've got right with Maverick. And you can just gape at Tom Cruise and I don't care where you are. Some people don't like him. But you just look at this guy's 59-years old. He's unbelievable. He really is. He is a bit like you and me, Mark. He's just a testament to what the human body can look like as they get older.
Mark Dawson: I'm not 59, James. Now you are closer than I am.
James Blatch: I am. I am. Okay. Right. I think it might be time to move on to our interviewee. Who's going to give us a really good instructional tour today. Because she teaches at Cambridge University. Teaches Thriller Writing at Cambridge University. And not only that, Sophie Hannah has also authored a Poirot novel. She's basically become Agatha Christie today. Which is really interesting story. And not many people get to do that with the approval of the family. Of course. Agatha Christie, I think, probably must be the best-selling. I think she is the best-selling fiction author in the world. I think I've read that somewhere, anyway. Okay. Certainly going to be up there, isn't she? Agatha Christie and taking on that mantle. Writing a modern day, well, a Poirot novel set in the twenties. But all the challenges that that entails.
But Sophie also teaches, as I say, she teaches a master's course on Thriller Writing at Cambridge University. Which is the best university in the world, just down the road for me. And it's something you can actually apply to be on and take part in as a part-time course. However, we want to talk to her about her publishing experience. She's trailed at the moment. But with envious eyes, looking at the indie world, you can tell from this interview and she makes that quite clear at the end. So let's hear it from Sophie Hannah, and then Mark. And I will be back for a quick chat at the end.
Speaker 1: This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Well, Sophie Hannah, welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. We can't interview Agatha Christie because she's not alive anymore. But we can interview somebody who's written a Poirot novel, which is quite exciting. Among the many things we're going to talk to you about. Let's start with that. How did you end up writing a Poirot novel?
Sophie Hannah: It was my agent's idea and I would never have thought of it. So when people say to me, as they often do, how did you persuade Agatha Christie's family to let you write a Poirot novel? I'm always slightly aghast because it would never in my wildest dreams have occurred to me to do any such thing. My agent had the idea, he was in a meeting at Harper Collins who are Agatha Christie's publishers. And he was sitting next to a shelf of Agatha Christie books. And the meeting was nothing to do with me or Agatha Christie. But he was looking at these books and he remembered that I was a big Agatha Christie fan. And so he just interrupted the meeting and said, Hey, aha, Christie's dead. And why don't you get someone to write new Christie brand novels. And I've got a writer who is a huge Christie fan and wouldn't this be a great idea?
And at the time Harper Colin said, "No, no, no. The Christie family would never want that to happen." But it later transpired that the Christie family was considering that very thing at that very moment. And they told Harper Collins that they were thinking of commissioning a new book at which point Harper Collins said, "Huh, that's a coincidence. We have this agent in our offices recently who thinks he's got the perfect author for that very thing." And then a meeting was arranged and we discussed what a new Christie brand book might look like or what would we want it to be? And we just got on really well and decided we wanted to do it.
James Blatch: And how do you then approach that? I mean, I imagine quite a lot of considerations in writing a contemporary Agatha Christie book. Dated nature, some of her writing of the era. Do you want to make it feel like it was written back in her era? Or do you want to take the essence of a type of story she wrote and writing today?
Sophie Hannah: Yes. I've written four Poirot novels so far, and I'm working on the fifth. The only contemporary element of my Poirot novels is that they're written now rather than in the past. But they're all set between 1928 and 1932. That was when we decided they would be set. Which I think of as Poirot as like Golden Age. So that was when I wanted to be writing about him. And so they absolutely do, if I've done my job right. They do read as though they were written at the time. Which obviously I had previously only written contemporary fiction, which it transpired. When I tried to start writing something that was set in 1929, I was like, "Oh, it's actually much easier to write something that's set now." Because you don't have to keep thinking, "Hang on, is this thing that I'm about to write about something that existed at that?" I know what exists now, because I'm in. But with my first Poirot novel, I constantly had to research whether the things I wanted to put in it, were things that existed in 1929 and some of them were not. So that was inconvenient.
James Blatch: I mean I write books in the sixties and even that makes me stop.Expressions like he focused on something. It's wording that you don't realise actually is quite modern. They may have said concentrated or something like that. And so I know there's challenges. But an amazing thing. Did you feel daunted?
Sophie Hannah: Well, it's so interesting. That is probably the question that I have been asked most often in relation to Poirot. Was I daunted when this whole proposal was mooted? And I think the truth is I probably could have interpreted that the emotional state I was in as daunted, but I didn't. And I think that made it easier and more fun for me because I certainly felt like, "Oh, I'm writing a Poirot." But I chose to define that feeling as massive excitement combined with a sort of acknowledgement of how important this was and how much it mattered. Because this was the queen of crime, Dame Agatha Christie, who I adore. I mean, she literally is my favourite writer of all time and I worship the ground she walks on. So it was really, really, really important to me to do a good job and serve this amazing crime writing icon. And it was incredibly exciting as a creative opportunity. So I just chose to think I'm very excited and I'm very aware of how important this is. I think if I'd talk-
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Sophie Hannah: ... I'm very aware of how important this is. I think if I'd told myself that it was a daunted feeling I might have discouraged myself because daunted sounds not very fun. You don't want to feel daunted. Whereas an exciting creative challenge that in order to meet it I would have to become an even better writer than I would want to become if I was just as I were writing a Sophie Hannah book... I always try and make my books as good as they possibly can be, but that thought of writing Poirot made me think I have to be even better because this is for Agatha Christie. So he's super important. And that challenge, which felt like I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do it well, and that was exciting. I just chose to see it all as a positive thing and an inspiration rather than a negative, scary thing.
James Blatch: Yeah. Very good. The genre expectations for an Agatha Christie novel, I imagine the genre expectations for the type of contemporary thriller you write haven't really changed. I mean, she helped form that, that who done it expectation.
Sophie Hannah: She absolutely did, but I think depending on what bit of the genre you are operating in the expectations are different. The purpose of sort of a blurb of a book and the opening chapter really is to lay out your stool and make what I call the story promise. The story promise should make it very clear whether this is a puzzle based mystery, so is the reader going to be reading on in order to have a satisfying solution to a baffling puzzle or is there going to be some other motivation, like finding out a lot about realistic financial crime in downtown Sheffield or whatever? So I think there's so many different compartments of the crime and thriller genre that in the puzzle bit of the genre, which is where I am, even when I'm writing psychological thrillers, contemporary psychological thrillers, I am very much a puzzle focused writer. There's a mystery.
The main reason I want readers to read my books is from a desperation to solve the mystery. I'm all about the mystery and suspense. So in that sense, that hasn't really changed since Agatha Christie was writing puzzling mysteries that she wanted people to be desperate to know the solution to. But I think both now and then, there were crime writers writing thrillers with a completely different set of priorities. For example, Raymond Chandler, who famously said various versions of who cares who done it, it's not about the plot, plot doesn't matter. Which I could not disagree with more.
So yeah, in the puzzle compartment of the crime writing world, the same priorities of entertaining the reader, keeping them in suspense, delivering a satisfying solution that is un-guessable but also makes perfect sense when you find out what it is, all of those things remain the same.
James Blatch: That is the trick, isn't it? We've talked on this show before about the artistry involved in particularly the red herrings along the way that, I think, need to make sense when you get to the end. You can't have a silly red herring in the middle. But when you learn the truth, you go back and think, "Well, hang on. Why did he refuse to talk to the police? It was a good gag at the time." That's hard.
Sophie Hannah: Well, I have a particular approach to plotting, which I call the gnocchi method. Gnocchi as in the Italian food.
James Blatch: [inaudible].
Sophie Hannah: Spelled G-N-O-C-C-H-I. I have a gnocchi method of planning. And the reason I call it gnocchi is that gnocchi is half potato and half pasta. And my method of planning a crime novel, what I end up with at the end of my planning process is half a really detailed plan and half effectively a first draught because my plans are so detailed that they're not properly written out like a novel but they are effectively a form of first draught but they're also a plan. And I can't decide whether they're more plan or more first draught so that's why I called it the gnocchi draught because it's both things, just like gnocchi is past and potato.
I find that if you do a really detailed plan and make the planning process not just some boring chore... So many writers think, "Oh, planning, that sounds really boring," but actually if you be a bit pretentious and call it story architecture, that immediately sounds more creative and exciting. So I like to do that kind of planning and then edit the plan so that all the components of the plot are laid out and sorted into their proper places before the actual writing starts so that when I come to the writing bit all I have to do is look at what needs to happen in each chapter from the plan and then write it as well as I can. But at that point I'm not worrying still about the plot. The plot is all decided and everything is in its proper position. So I actually do quite a lot of plot editing at the planning stage and I find that really, really helps. Because when we are in the full flow of the writing, we often get quite caught up in that and swept away by it, and that's not the right part of our brain to then think, "Hang on, is the plot working?" I like to divide writing up into the story architecture and then the actually realising what you've planned stages.
James Blatch: Yeah. Sounds right up my street. Of course, some people just simply sit there and write and make a good fist of it and it works for them, but that's definitely the sort of thing I do. The gnocchi stage for you then, is that roughly a novel length-
Sophie Hannah: No, no, usually between 50 and 80 pages a gnocchi draught because it's... The whole novel, every single incident, anything that's important to be in each chapter is included, but it's in note form and as abbreviated as possible.
James Blatch: Yes. Okay. All right. Well, let's talk about your writing then, having had that introduction, because I think there is more to explore here. Better tell us, Sophie, how you started and how you ended up with some pretty impressive deals with... It's Harper I think you write for.
Sophie Hannah: It's HarperCollins for the Poirot novels and it's Hodder & Stoughton for all my psychological thrillers. I've been with Hodder since my very first crime novel was published in 2005, but how I started was that as a child writing was always my main hobby. So I started writing very, very young, like age five or six. I was making up stories, writing poems, copying them all out neatly into notebooks. I was taking my writing pretty seriously for a six-year-old. And then it just became my only real sort of hobby other than hanging... My main hobby as a kid and a teenager was hanging out with my mates. But my only sort of other interest was writing and I just always did it, prioritised it, cared about it. And at school, at secondary school and at sixth form college, I just took for granted that I would pretty much neglect my schoolwork... I mean, I did the basics to get by, but I never ever, ever worked hard at a single piece of work that I had to do for school or sixth form college because I just wasn't interested really in any of that. I was interested in doing my writing, which I put loads of effort and energy into.
I mean, when I had my first proper job, I did the same. I deliberately in fact chose a job... When I was at university, I was thinking, how can I get a job that's really boring and really easy that just pays the bills but I don't have to let it occupy too much mental space so that all my mental energy can go towards my writing hobby?
I never thought it would really be anything other than a hobby. I had a definite ambition to get published and I was determined that I was going to get published. I don't think it ever crossed my mind that it would... Even if I got to a point where everything I was writing was being published, it never crossed my mind that I would actually be able to live on any money from it. I just thought that it does happen but it doesn't happen generally, so I just never thought of that. I would've been quite happy just publishing my stuff, whatever I was writing at the time, and having my boring easy job, and that was the plan.
I stuck to that plan until I wrote Little Face, Hodder & Stoughton loved it and made an offer for it, and it was a two-book deal and I realised that the money I was being offered for those two books was quite a bit more than the money I was earning from my job, which at that point I had a different job which I did not like. So I was like, "I guess I seem to have turned into a writer. If I gave up my job now, then I could live on the writing money. That's a bit weird. Maybe I should do that." So it kind of happened that way, but I was very prepared for it just to be my favourite hobby forever.
James Blatch: So out of interest, what was the job you chose that would be easy and give you time to write?
Sophie Hannah: It was an amazing job. I was a sort of library admin assistant, and that involved a lot of putting catalogue cards... So there were loads of catalogue cards about what books were in the library ,and my job was to get each card and input it into a computer database, and that was it. It was so easy, it was so boring I could do it almost in my sleep.
I'm a very, very fast typist. I did a secretarial course at a certain point, it was like an extra option at six form, so I can type 95 words a minute. So I did all my day's work in a couple of hours and I was working in this beautiful and really quiet sort of members club that was also an antiquarian library. So it was this beautiful, old building and various business people and retired army types would come in and have their lunch in the sort of gentleman's club bit and then people would take out antiquarian books to look at. And there was an amazing cook called Muriel, who cooked lunch for everybody every day, and I was extremely excited about these delicious lunches that Muriel was providing. So it was a really perfect setup for someone who needed to earn money, but wanted to have a very relaxing job and be able to focus on writing at the same time.
James Blatch: So then you sent your manuscripts off direct to the publishers or did you go to an agent?
Sophie Hannah: No, I had an agent. Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay, so you've got an agent, how did you get the agent [inaudible] and-
Sophie Hannah: Well, so actually when I wrote my first crime novel I already had an agent because years earlier I'd written three other novels that were not crime and I got an agent for those, and she was wonderful. But she then retired and I was sort of passed onto another agent at the same agency. So when I wrote Little Face, my first published crime novel, I had an agent, but my agent didn't like Little Face. I sent her the first hundred pages and the synopsis of the rest, and she said she didn't like it and she explained why she didn't like it, and I really disagreed with her. She said, there wasn't any mystery in it and it's supposed to be a mystery novel, and there were three very definite mysteries in it within the first sort of two chapters. So I just thought... I know I might be biassed because I'm the author, but I think she might be wrong. Either way, we're not going to make progress in a client agent relationship if she doesn't like my writing.
I'd written a book previously which she had really disliked, which I thought was fine, so I was like, "She'd never chosen me. She just inherited me." I thought it's entirely possible that this woman does not like my writing." So I sort of probed in a tactful way, and she confirmed that she did in fact really disliked my writing. I was like, "Okay. So now that we know this, really it's crazy for us to carry on working together," so I left that agency and I then sent the first hundred pages of Little Face, the same first hundred that she had disliked, I sent it to five other agents on the same morning with a letter saying, "This is not an exclusive submission. I'm sending this to five of you. I've just left my agent who really did not like this novel and here are all the things she said that were wrong with it. I disagree, but what do I know? I'm the author. I'm obviously biassed in its favour. What do you think?" I sent that to five agents.
By 10:30 the following morning, four of them had rung up on the actual telephone and said, "We love this. We want to meet you. We want to represent this book." The fifth later got back to me and said she didn't like it. So as with anything, some people like it, some people don't, but the fact that four out of the five loved it and were very keen, made me think, "Okay, my instinct was not wrong, this book does have potential. Even if there's stuff about it that needs work, if four out of five people are ringing up before 10:30, that's a good sign."
So then I went and met them all. I chose one. That agent relationship didn't work out either because although that agent did really help me to improve the book, we ended up in a slightly ludicrous situation where she would never agree that it was ready to go out to publishers. Every time I said, "Right, I've done this next round of edits, are we ready to go out on submission?" She was like, "We just feel there's something more we could do." And this went on for months and months and months and I was getting quite despondent because I was thinking like, I've done 17 rounds of edit-
James Blatch: Once it goes to a publisher, don't they do some rounds of edits anyway?
Sophie Hannah: They do, but that's fine. I was quite happy to accept that the agent would edit it, then the publisher would edit it, but the thing that became intolerable for me was that the agent eventually started to say, "I know it needs more work but I can't think of what it is that it needs."
So I had just had my second child at that point and I was having regular lunches with the antenatal group mums, and it just so happened that one of the antenatal group moms was a tax lawyer. She still is a tax lawyer. She happened to come around to my house for lunch when I was on the phone to this agent and I put the phone down and I was quite in despair, and I said, "She's just saying it needs work, but she doesn't know what it needs and let her think about it." But then I'd already let her think about it for months and she hadn't thought of anything.
My friend said, "Hold on a minute, I am a tax lawyer, if I said to one of my clients there's something wrong with your tax affairs but I just can't put my finger on what it is, they would fire me and you need to fire this agent." I was like, "Oh yeah. Why didn't I think of that?" So then I parted company with that agent and then a friend of mine who's a poet was describing his agent and I just liked the sound of... He sounded quite eccentric, this agent that my poet-
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Sophie Hannah: He sounded quite eccentric, this agent that my poet friend was describing. I was like, "Yeah, maybe I should try a totally different kind of agent. This guy sounds interesting and eccentric. I'm going to give him a try." So I sent Little Face to him, and he rang up. Actually, I was out when he rang up. I was at my health club, swimming. And my husband answered the phone, and the agent said to my husband, "Yeah, tell Sophie I really like Little Face and I want to represent it. I think it's terrific. I'm going to send it out."
So he was so keen that he was almost sending it out before he'd even spoken to me. And I was like, "Okay then." I came back from my swim and my husband was like, "I think you've got a new agent. He didn't seem to want to wait to speak to you. He just told me he was going ahead." And I was like, "Okay." And within days, literally days, he was telling me that Hodder were very, very interested, and could we go in for a meeting? We went in for a meeting, and it just went so amazingly well. And I've been with Hodder ever since.
James Blatch: And how many of your stories that you had written up until that point subsequently made it into published form? Or did you consider everything you'd done, age five and six onwards, as just practise, and then you came up with new stories once you had a deal?
Sophie Hannah: Yeah. Everything was new after I had the deal. What I did do, though, was there was one plot element in one of my unpublished novels, that was rightly unpublished, because I wasn't a mature enough writer at the point when I wrote it. But there was one idea that I just loved that I just took out and initially just put on my mental shelf of things I might use later, and then I used it in 2009, in a standalone thriller.
James Blatch: Okay.
Sophie Hannah: Generally, I didn't want to go back to... Because I could see how much better Little Face was. Well, I could see how much better the version of Little Face that Hodder read and bought, that was so much better than my original version of Little Face. And then Little Face, the original version was so much better than the book before. So I knew I was improving book to book, and so I didn't want to go back and publish anything that I knew was worse.
James Blatch: Sure. And we should say you've had some fabulous success. I mean, you've hit the top 10 lists certainly in the UK, in the US as well. I think you've done well.
Sophie Hannah: Yeah. Yeah. So I've been a New York Times bestseller once. And I've been a Sunday Times bestseller many, many times. My last, but one, thriller, Haven't They Grown, got to number four in the UK top 10 and was a Richard and Judy Book Club book and has sold amazingly well, I think because it's very high concept. That is one of my most high concept books.
But Little Face, the first one sold incredibly well. It sold into like 35 countries, was a bestseller in many of those countries. And here, what was really interesting was it was a word of mouth bestseller. So when Hodder acquired it, they said to me, "We absolutely love this book. We think it's brilliant. Please don't expect it to be a bestseller, because it's quite subtle, it's quite sophisticated, so we're going to aim to sell 10,000 copies. That will be amazing. And then we'll build on that, and we are really committed."
And I was like, "Wow, that's amazing. 10,000 copies. I'd be very happy with that." But then, by a few months after it coming out, it had already sold 40,000 copies, and it had just taken off. And then the sales just carried on and carried on, and it was selling all over the world, and it became a word of mouth phenomenon that no one had expected to be a best seller, which was amazing. Hodder, and I, and my agent, we were all just thrilled, because we would have genuinely been really happy if it had sold 10,000 copies.
James Blatch: Yeah. How did you find the experience of working with a publisher and agent? I mean, there seems to be a lot of people you are then collaborating with, where, from a self-published point of view, very often, although you hire an editor, a lot of this is done alone. Feels like, to me, a different writing experience.
Sophie Hannah: It is a different writing experience. And what's interesting is... So, I was very lucky. My agent, that same agent that I ended up with for Little Face, he is still my agent, and my editor at Hodder, she is still my editor. Hodder is still my publisher. And because those relationships are so brilliant, and they work so well, and my editor is just amazing, my agent is amazing, I am really, really happy in those relationships because they just work.
So the reason I'm still traditionally published rather than self-published is because I was lucky enough to end up in relationships where I felt, and still feel, as though I'm just with the ideal people and I want to carry on working with them. But what's interesting is... Well firstly, when I published Little Face, self-publishing, wasn't a thing in the way that it is now. But I think temperamentally, I am actually more... I wouldn't say more suited to being a self-published writer. But if I was starting out now, I would consider self-publishing as a brilliant option.
And I think, as I say, I remain traditionally published because I've been very lucky to have great relationships and great results. But my instincts, I think, have more in common with the self-published writers that I know. Because I can imagine a situation where, if you were with an agent who you didn't feel was great for representing your work, and if you were with a publisher who you didn't feel was as great as my publisher is, I can imagine thinking, "Well, why wouldn't I set up a self-publishing operation? Because then I've got more freedom and more control."
So I'm always... I run a coaching programme for writers called Dream Author Coaching. And one of the things I'm constantly saying when I'm coaching writers to help them create success, I'm constantly saying, "Please, please don't regard the traditional route to publishing as, in any way, innately superior to the self-published route. It simply is not." But what's interesting is, so many writers, especially people of my generation, I'm 50, and people of my age and older, because we all grew up in a climate where if you wanted to be properly published, you were traditionally published, that was the way, I think a lot of people still have this almost unquestioned core belief that somehow traditional publishing is a bit better somehow.
James Blatch: Yeah. And you fall back on indie publishing.
Sophie Hannah: Exactly. If your publishing career doesn't work. Whereas I think both, as a traditionally published writer and as a self-published writer, it is possible to create massive success, and it's also possible to fail. And one is not better than the other in any way.
James Blatch: Yeah, definitely. I have-
Sophie Hannah: It has it's advantages and disadvantages, obviously. Both of them do. But if I were starting out now, I would want to look at all the options, weigh up the advantages and disadvantages, and probably actually aim to do a mixture of both.
James Blatch: Yeah. And one thing, when you... We'll talk about your teaching in a second. But when you do talk to students, aspiring writers today, particularly perhaps younger ones who don't have particularly set in their ways about how they're going to do it, how do you advise them to go through the process that you go through, the third party who looks at your script and says to you, "It needs to rewrite. It's not quite working."
As a self-published author, I sometimes think there's a temptation not to go through that phase. Even though you do give it out to an editor, you can choose to give it to a dev editor, but ultimately, it's your decision what you do with that information. Whereas in your environment, you are basically being told, "This needs a rewrite," and your books, by the sounds of it, get better as a result of that process.
Sophie Hannah: Yeah. My editor always spots things that need improving, and I've never disagreed with her. Whenever she says, "This doesn't quite work. This is a problem that needs to be resolved," I don't think I've ever disagreed with her even once. But what I would advise, and I do advise my Dream Authors, as I call them, the people in my coaching programme, is that whether you are going to take someone's editorial comments and implement them or not, it's, I believe, vitally important to have somebody.
It doesn't have to even be a paid editor. It can be. But it could be... I have a close friend who is a writer, who is such a brilliant editor. And she reads everything of mine before my editor, my proper editor, even sees it, because I want her feedback. So it doesn't matter who it is and whether they're a professional editor. What matters is somebody else, somebody intelligent, whose judgement you trust, reading your work and giving you feedback. What that does is it helps to develop, and hone, and finesse your own inner editorial sense.
I believe all of us, especially... I mean, maybe not all of us. But anyone who reads a lot and has a lot of practise at writing, we all have our inner editorial wisdom that knows what works and what doesn't work. But we often don't realise we've got that wisdom. And we often only know what we think about our own work once we hear someone else's opinion, and then we find that we're either thinking, "Yes, of course that would be better," or, "No, that's a ridiculous suggestion. I'm definitely not doing that."
So it's not that we need the editorial feedback so that we can obey it slavishly and do everything someone else says, because why on Earth would we want to hand over our power in that way? But it's useful to get editorial feedback of a substantive kind because it really helps you to... It provokes your own inner editor to pop out and go, "I know what I think needs to happen here." And that's the really valuable bit.
Because after being edited for many years, I now have my own inner editor, which means I am able to cut out a load of stuff that isn't going to work before anyone else has to be bothered and disturbed by it and tell me it's wrong. I'm just like, "No, my inner editor can tell that's wrong. I can fix it." And we can't really build our own inner editorial sense without having editorial feedback from other people. So even the bad feedback is so useful.
James Blatch: Yeah. And-
Sophie Hannah: If someone says, "Change your ending. It doesn't work. Change it to this." If your response is, "What do you mean it doesn't work? It works brilliantly because this is the only way that..." And you're like, "Oh, now I know why I want this ending."
James Blatch: Yes. And do you find that even now, when you write a draught, you go through that process, you carry something forward each time, you learn something new each time?
Sophie Hannah: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, let's talk about your teaching then. Because in addition to being a bestselling author, you are a teacher, not just with your Dream Authors, but also your speaking to us from Cambridge University, just down the road for me, actually, here in the UK. And you're actually teaching at one of the most prestigious universities. In fact, they would say in Cambridge, the most prestigious university of the world, of course. So tell us how... Is that something, obviously, you are passionate about, I guess, wanting to teach?
Sophie Hannah: Yeah. So I was approached by Cambridge University and asked if I wanted to create a crime and thriller writing master's degree. And I knew that if I said yes, then I would get to teach this degree programme at Madingley Hall, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in Cambridge. And I just thought that would actually be idyllic, to teach crime and thriller writing at Cambridge University in this beautiful building.
So I couldn't resist, even though I was already quite busy with writing my books and running my Dream Author Coaching programme. I just couldn't resist. So I said yes. So I'm now the course director of the crime and thriller master's programme at Cambridge University. And I'm there now, which is why I've got, you can see I've got a slightly institutional style, what to do in the event of a fire on my door. I would not have that on my door at home, just to clarify.
James Blatch: This is if you're watching on YouTube. Yes. It's a...
Sophie Hannah: Yeah. So I teach crime writing at Cambridge University. And my Dream Author programme isn't teaching. It's coaching. It's basically life and career coaching for writers and anyone who wants to write.
James Blatch: Okay. And how does that operate? How does that structure itself, your authors?
Sophie Hannah: So it's a 14 month membership programme, and it's all online. There are opportunities to meet in person because we have regular Dream Author retreats initially. And so far, they've all been in one location, but there will be other locations in due course. But mainly it's online. And there are coaching calls where you can get live coaching. There are webinars where you can request for coaching that's more anonymous if you don't want to be identified. There are podcasts, there are workbooks, there are exercises. And there's basically coaching in every possible format that I can think of.
And when you are in the programme, you can ask for coaching at any point. So let's say your agent has just written to you and said, "I don't like the new draught. In fact, I think it's terrible, and I'm not willing to send it to the publisher," and you feel absolutely devastated. You can go to the Ask Sophie page of the Dream Author Coaching website and say, "Can I please be coached in the next webinar? Because I feel like giving up." And then, any challenge, or issue, or emotional, or psychological thing that comes up, I coach people on those things with a view to putting every writer and everyone who wants to write in the position where they can become their own best and strongest ally for the rest of their writing life.
Because a lot of writers, they're fine and they feel happy when things are going well. But when there's a negative result, like a book gets turned down, or they find out their new book didn't sell and they get dumped by their publisher, or their book that they adore has been rejected by everyone and they don't know what to do next, generally, people think, "What do I do? It's all doom and gloom. I feel terrible and I don't know where to turn." The aim of the Dream Author programme is to coach writers and give them all the skills they need, so that whatever challenging, or disappointing, or upsetting thing has just happened, they know how to be their own strongest advocate and how to think about what's happened in a way that gives them a direction to move forward.
I mean, what I always say in Dream Author is, yes, we're all going to get disappointing results sometimes. We're all going to get fails as well as wins. And when those fails happen, we are going to feel disappointed, and gutted, and all the negative... There's no way around that. But we don't have to make those disappointing events mean anything terminal. We don't have to make them mean I'm never going to succeed, because that's not a fact that is true. Just because a disappointing thing has happened in the very recent past doesn't mean anything about what's going to happen in future. But if you make that disappointment mean, it's so-
Section 3 of 4 [00:32:00 - 00:48:04]
Section 4 of 4 [00:48:00 - 01:01:18]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Sophie Hannah: But if you make that disappointment mean, "It's so hard to be a writer, I might as well give up," then you're going to really discourage yourself and probably give up, and then you really can't succeed. Whereas if as I always did, when I was getting rejected by publishers in the very early days, I would make a disappointment mean nothing more than, "Well, that was disappointing. I didn't get the result I wanted on this occasion. Right. And now what? What's the next thing I can do to create the success that I know is going to be coming to me at some point." And there's a huge difference between those two things, right? I never, even when I was most disappointed at having just had a novel rejected, I never even considered believing that I was not capable of becoming a successful writer. I was just like, "Oh, I'm disappointed. It didn't happen on this occasion. Right. What's the next strategy? So that it's... Because it's definitely going to happen. So how do I make it happen?"
So it's really, Dream of the Coaching is all about looking at the gap between the facts of any situation and what we decide to make it mean and how we can actually choose our thoughts and beliefs on purpose in order to create the feelings that will drive the actions that will create the results that we want. And so once... The reason the dream of the programme is 14 months is that if it were too short, people would think, "Yeah, that all sounds great, but I don't know how to practise it." But with 14 months of very immersive content, by the end of that 14 months, everyone has learned the skills and they are able to coach themselves so that they can carry on creating success and going after whatever their writing dreams are.
James Blatch: And is it... This mindset I think is probably a good word for what you are talking about. Is this something that's naturally been a part of the way that you operate or have you learnt to be positive in those situations?
Sophie Hannah: So both. So naturally, I am very positive, optimistic, and assuming that if I want to do something, then I'll find a way to make it happen. I do have the huge advantage of just being naturally like that. I am a glass is half full person, but I have also had extensive coaching myself and I have learned a lot. That's kind of almost turbocharged my tendency in that direction. So I would say it's probably about 50-50.
James Blatch: Okay.
Sophie Hannah: And there's some of the things I teach and coach on in Dream Author were things that I used to think of as like, "It's probably a bit weird that I think like this. So I just won't tell anyone. I think in this way that the rest of the world doesn't think. I won't mention it and I'll pretend to be more normal."
And then I had lots of mindset coaching myself and I thought, "Oh, hang on. The way I'm being encouraged to think about things is how I do anyway, but I thought it was just me being weird and kind of slightly diluted, believing I could create huge success." But actually if you believe you can create huge success, then you feel great, and then you are so much more likely to take the actions that do in fact create success. So yeah, I would say it's 50-50. I had a head start by being a natural optimist, but I've learnt so much from the coaching programmes that I've been part of as well.
James Blatch: And in the 14 months, is there opportunities for manuscript specific feedback or is it more general approach? You read at some point or someone reads and you give specific... ?
Sophie Hannah: Yeah, I'm very obsessive and I want Dream Author to just be the best thing ever for writers. I want writers to join Dream Author and go, "Oh my God, this is the best thing ever. How is this all possible? And so affordable at the same time?" So I try and do everything and people join the programme. And within weeks they're saying like, "I don't know how... This is just the best thing ever." So that's been really nice, because that was my aim and that is happening. People who join the programme love it. So if they say, "My manuscript's been rejected by everyone," I will say, "Send me exactly what the publishers have been sent. Send me your submission package. And I will look at it and I bet I can find explanations for why they might have all been rejecting it." And I always can. I always say, "Change these five things and it will become a more irresistible prospect for a publisher." And often that fixes it and then they go and then next thing I hear they're getting published or...
James Blatch: Okay.
Sophie Hannah: It's amazing that the results that they are, that my dream authors are creating. Once they start to realise that facts are just facts and we can choose to make them mean whatever we want. So an agent ignores you for six weeks. Most writers would think, "Oh, maybe my novel's so bad that they just can't bear to get back to me." And I always say, "No, what if it means that agent is terrible at getting back to people? It may not mean anything about. Your novel might be a masterpiece. The agent might be a crap communicator or your novel might be brilliant, but not to that agent's taste." So we don't always have to go...
So often a writer will tell you, if you say to any writer, "How's the writing going?" Right? They will tell you what they think is just a factual report. This is just the situation. You asked me how things are going. Let me tell you how badly things are going, but I can always hear that only half of that, or even less is the facts. And the rest is the negative meanings they're giving to everything. "Obviously, it's all doomed. Obviously, I'm just going to sell fewer and fewer copies. Obviously, I'm going to be living under a bridge by this time next year." And you're like, "Hang on a minute. You're getting all that from the agent hasn't responded yet?" So that's where the coaching can come in really handy.
James Blatch: Well, you better tell people where they can find more information about the coaching, the-
Sophie Hannah: Yeah. Dreamauthorcoaching.com. And there's a newsletter at the bottom of the home page. You can sign up to join the Dream Author newsletter. I don't send out newsletters terribly often because everything I ever sign up to sends out too many newsletters. So only when I've got like... I'll often do a special offer or I'll give away a freebie, that's when I send out newsletters, but I don't send them just for the sake of it.
James Blatch: Okay. And the Masters of Cambridge, how would people find out more information about that?
Sophie Hannah: If you Google, Institute of Continuing Education Cambridge University Crime and Thriller, our page will pop up, and there'll be some dark black and white noir-ish photo saying, "Here's how you apply for the crime and thriller programme."
James Blatch: 'Course. I expect nothing less. Well, Sophie, the time is whizzed by. I've been enthralled by. It's been really interesting listening to you. So thank you very much, indeed. Good luck with the future of writing and the coaching programme. And let's chat again in the future. I'm sure we could just probably pick one aspect of writing and spend 40 minutes talking about it with you.
Sophie Hannah: Definitely. No, I'd love to come on again because I do... I'm so interested in self-publishing. In my head, it is definitely something I'm going to do one day. I just I'm waiting for the time to be right when I'm slightly less busy with other things, but there's no way that I'm going to get to the end of my writing career and never have self-published a book.
James Blatch: It might be something you start and never look back on with the-
Sophie Hannah: Yeah. It might be.
James Blatch: But yeah, well, you know where we are if you need our help for that front as well. So we'd like to be a part of it. Thank you very much, indeed, Sophie. I'm going to let you go and need to go. Thank you so much, indeed, for coming on. It's been brilliant.
Sophie Hannah: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
Speaker 1: This is the Self Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: There you go. Sophie Hannah, really good to talk to her and writing a Agatha Christie novel. That's a bit like I supposed I've done it with Ian Fleming's Bonds. Haven't they? Who is it? Birdsong man, Sebastian Faulks, I think, did the first-
Mark Dawson: And Lady Horowitz. They're have been few.
James Blatch: And Matt Horace has done done them as well, but yeah, big boots to fill and Agatha Christie... I mean, Bond, I suppose, delivers Bond. Agatha Christie has to deliver not just something that looks and feels like her. It's got to deliver that intrigue because she was brilliant at that twist, getting all that. I would feel nervous. I would feel nervous about that.
Mark Dawson: Mild racism.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, I think... We did talk a little bit about the sensitivities and stuff involved in that. [inaudible] Not as bad [inaudible] Peter Brighton.
Mark Dawson: You know, the biggest selling fiction writer of all time, it wasn't, that is Shakespeare. But as she's second. In fact, she's joint first year. Just looking at Wikipedia, the minimum estimated sells two billion.
James Blatch: Units.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. I mean, I suppose it's possible. It sounds like quite a lot, but yes, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele, Harold Robins, George Simenon, all half a million, but yes. Yeah, so she's certainly up there.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. It's interesting to take on something like that, to take on another author without being a pastiche of the author. So there is... It is a difficult balancing act towards something that feels contemporary. Also the main... That maybe should not want it to feel contemporary. They may want it to feel of the time, but without doing that in a way where crop power is dwelling as moustache or all of that kind of stuff can very easily slip over into the slightly clumsy pastiche. So yeah, very interesting one to try and get right.
James Blatch: Yeah. She's a very thoughtful writer, Sophie. And as I say, she does this master's degree. I did look it up after the interview and I have to say it's quite expensive. It's like, it's best part of 10,000 pounds a year and it's a two year course. So you're going to spend 19 odd thousand pounds knocking on $30,000 to do it, but it's Cambridge University and we gave the details towards the end of the interview on that.
So thank you very much to our guest, Sophie. I fully expect next time we talk to Sophie in a year or two's time that she would've dipped her toe fully into the indie market. And I think she's the sort of author who will fly in the indie world, but will be interested to see that.
Okay, just a reminder, $25 to buy a digital pass to the Self Publishing Show 2022. This will be a fully produced package delivered to you after the show of every session, $25. I think for the information available in that package. I think that's a steal, but it's going to go up to $40 on the 30th of June. So after the show, from 30th of June for the rest of the year, will be $40. You get an early bird chance to buy it for $25 if you go to selfpublishingformula.com/digital. And that's, I think, Mark, is there. I can see you're now distracted on your phone. What are you looking outside?
Mark Dawson: No, I'm just taking... I was just taking a picture for you.
James Blatch: Oh, the swans?
Mark Dawson: There's four swans that are just swimming around. I said, off camera. This is all very, very incredible.
James Blatch: We need to put a webcam on so we can watch the swans the whole time.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. I've been teasing that. I'm not actually going to try and kill them. Actually want to just feed them. And yesterday, we had a breakthrough and now they've... The swan who had the feed I gave was talking to all his mates. So they're all there waiting impatiently for me to go and feed them. So I [inaudible].
James Blatch: Your barn is perfectly set up actually to mount outdoor all weather webcam on the outside. And there's quite a few of those bird ones you can tune. When my father-in-law, unfortunately, was palliatively ill, and he was a big bird, I looked up a whole list of these webcams. You can sit there watching someone's garden in Savannah, in Georgia.
Mark Dawson: I've have a Nest security floodlight on the barn shooting out. So yeah, it would work. Absolutely.
James Blatch: Yeah. Yeah. Feed that into the web and let people watch your swans. Just make sure it's not a reflection so they can see inside.
Mark Dawson: Yes. Very good point.
James Blatch: Okay. Right. Thank you very much indeed to our guest, Sophie Hannah. Thank you to the team in the background who put this show together. Thank you, Mark. And we will be back next week. So look. Where are we now in terms of the conference? It is the 14th today.
Mark Dawson: It's two weeks today.
James Blatch: Two weeks today. Okay, Mark-
Mark Dawson: As we record this. So as this goes out, it'll be less than two weeks, so yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah. So we'll have one more podcast before the conference itself and we'll remind you of those details again then. Right. That's it. Thank you very much indeed. All that remains for me to say it is it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye for me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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