SPS-352: Reverse-Engineering a Story – with Michael Webb
Michael Webb has grown from a fan of fantasy novels to the author of a very well-received trilogy. He chats with James about starting from scratch as a writer, publishing his first book in 2021, what he’s learned about writing, what he’ll do differently with the next books, and how he’s built his audience.
- On the learning curve and new skills required when beginning to write a novel
- Building pivotal character moments into a book
- Gathering those first few essential reviews
- Thinking outside the box when marketing a book
- Lessons learned from publishing a first trilogy
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
BOOK PRIZE: Learn more about the Joffe Books prize for crime writers of colour
MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.
SPS-352: Reverse-Engineering a Story - with Michael Webb
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
Michael Webb: What's really helped me in the story creation was, it has these moments built in. I didn't just stumble into them, I purposefully created them.
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 writings?
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 to The Self-Publishing Show with me James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: It's a Friday, we are here and we have some exciting news to start this week's episode off. We are very excited that we are about to launch tickets for the Self-Publishing Show Live 2023.
Mark Dawson: Yes. So, it's what, 20th and 21st of June, on the South Bank again, so that's the same venue that we've had for the last couple of years. Starting to work on the programme, so I've got a couple of speakers, who I actually had a chat with in Florida, who are coming over, and we've got some interesting plans for this year, specifically for the digital ticket, which we hint at.
We won't mention too much about it now, but just to say that it will be much more valuable than it has been in the past. And if you get a live ticket, which we are talking about now, you'll get the digital ticket and the extras that we're planning as a part of that price.
James Blatch: Yes. So, in terms of the price, obviously there is a cost of living crisis around the world at the moment. I don't know if you call it that in America, but basically, prices are going up, and we are going through everything we can at the moment trying to keep prices as capped as possible. It's not going to be possible to do the price we did last year, and we did lose a bit money last year. We don't mind losing a bit of money, but we can't lose a lot, so the prices are going up.
However, we are going to do an early bird offer to keep that capped as much as possible. So, early birds, if you sign up straight away, you will get the conference at a good discount. And as Mark says, that includes what we think is going to be about $99 worth of digital ticket that will be included in that.
Now, you can get your early bird ticket, no panic, it's not today, it's next Friday. So, it's Friday the 21st of October. Tickets will be released at 2:00 PM UK, so that's after breakfast in New York and before breakfast in Los Angeles, but it's a time that everyone, we think, can get to their computers if they're keen.
We may sell out, we think, potentially, the early bird offers on that day, so you probably do want to be there in the morning. The place to go, and I'll give you the URL now, is selfpublishingformula.com/earlybird. And the prices, I can tell you, is going to be actually up to 18% discount on the full price tickets.
So, you can get a full conference ticket for both days for a £149, and you can get a full conference ticket for both days and the party, the Self-Publishing party, which you definitely want to go to, for a £174. They are the two options you have on both of those.
Both of them include a digital access ticket, and the digital ticket is going to be much bigger and grander than it was last year, and that's going to be worth at least $99 to you. So, you can go snap your ticket up, start looking at flights and hotels for London 2023, baby. That is June the 20th and 21st, Tuesday and Wednesday.
And you need to go to selfpublishingformula.com/earlybird, all one word. 2:00 PM next Friday the 21st of October those tickets will be released. We'll do another batch in the new year at full price. So, if you want that early bird offer, you want to secure your place. We look forward to seeing you in London.
We do have a couple of other things to mention, but certainly look forward to seeing you at the show next year.
Now, let's do our patron supporter. Mark, do you have the Patreon supporter in front of you?
Mark Dawson: I do, yes. Shonda Miller from Tennessee, USA. So, thank you very much to Shonda for joining the SPF Patreon and helping us to keep going with the podcast. Also, I need to, after our kerfuffle last week about whether someone was or was not in New York, I've heard from Katherine that Michael Robbins is not from New York, so he hasn't actually given us a-
James Blatch: But he might not be from New York.
Mark Dawson: Well, it's possible. I suppose this is where he could be at. We don't know where he is. New York's a fairly live city, of course, so he could very well be in New York, but then again, he could be in-
James Blatch: We'll do a further clarification next week if Michael-
Mark Dawson: If he wants us to correctly locate him, then he needs to drop us a line. But thank you very much to Michael, again, and thank you to Shonda who's definitely from Tennessee.
James Blatch: Thank you, Shonda, yeah.
Mark Dawson: Thank you to both of them.
James Blatch: Good. Right. We also have one more thing to talk about before we come onto our interview. Our interview, by the way, is about getting going in self-publishing. So, it's the perfect interview for people like me and those of us towards the beginning of our careers. We have a prize to talk about. So, how do you fancy a £25,000 advance from Audible, or an offer from Audible for your first book? That's one of the prizes you get for winning this competition. Another is a £1,000 cash.
I guess you get a publishing deal with Joffe, yes indeed, you get a publishing deal with Joffe Books. So, this has been put up by Jasper Joffe who runs Joffe Books, a friend of the show. We are very huge admirers of Jasper and everything he's done here in the UK, building up that imprint, concentrates on crime and gritty crimes. I'm going to read the blurb. Now, this prize, so right from the beginning, is for people of colour. So, this is exactly what Jasper has written here.
"The prize invites submissions from un-agented authors, from Black, Asian, indigenous, and minority ethnic backgrounds, writing in crime fiction genres, including electrifying psychological thrillers, cosy mysteries, gritty police procedurals, twisty chillers, un-put-downable suspense mysteries, and shocking domestic noirs." I'd read any of those the way that Jasper writes. He writes, obviously, a good blurb, doesn't he?
There you go. So, that's what you need to do. And that prize is a really good one. You can enter up until midnight on the 31st of October 2022. There are some more details about what exactly you need to do for your submission if you go to the following place, joffebooks.com/prize, P-R-I-Z-E. We spell it with the "Z", don't we? Yes. It's not one of those words that would fit the UK/US thing where we spell it with "S" and they with a "Z", but we both spell it with the "Z".
Mark Dawson: With a Zee, yes.
James Blatch: Or a Zee. So, joffebooks.com/prize. Well done, Jasper, for initiating that prize. And obviously he feels, he works in the industry, that there's an under-representation there and he's trying to fix that with this prize and raise the profile. So, good luck with that.
I'll tell you what, we'd like to speak to the winner wouldn't we, at some point, and might even have them on the show and talk about how their writing is going. Good. Mark, I think that's it for our preamble, but we have the main meat in our sandwich now, or, if you like, tofu.
Mark Dawson: Oh, dear. Yes. Here we go. It's a meaty sandwich today. So, we've got, who have we got on the podcast, James? We've got Michael Webb, haven't we? And the topic is Getting Started, I think.
James Blatch: Yeah, it is. So, Michael Webb is someone who's has had a really terrific start to his indie publishing career. He's somebody who gets a lot right. He focuses his work. We always talk about smart work rather than hard work. And absolutely, I think Michael is an example of that. So, he really dissects how he's got to where he's got to so quickly with just a couple of books. Very useful for people like me. So, here's Michael and Mark, and I will be back for a chat at the end of the interview.
Hey, Michael Webb, welcome to the Self-Publishing Show from Atlanta, Georgia. We are going to talk, I think, about getting going in the whole indie space, which we can talk to each other about this because I've got going in the last couple of years.
Why don't we start with you, as you are the guest, then tell us a bit about your indie position, where you are now, how you got going.
Michael Webb: Cool. Well, I started writing three years ago, out of the blue. I never wrote at all. I hated writing when I was growing up. Whenever I get assignments in school, I always cringed about it. But I've always been a big reader, I love stories, fantasy, young adult, suspense, adventure. And I got this bucket list idea in my head that it would be fun to write a novel and share with a few friends and family. I just thought that would be cool.
So, I dug in. I said, "Alright, I'm going to do it," and I started writing, and I quickly realised that it's a lot more work than I expected. And that's shame on me for saying, "Hey, I want to write. So, boom, let's start with a novel." But I got into it and absolutely fell in love with it. And the farther I got into writing, I realised I don't just want to put something out there to write... copy, print it, send it off to Amazon, sell five copies and be done. I realised if I'm going to put this much time and effort into it, I want to do it right.
So, I put a tonne of time into research, reading books, listening to podcasts, reading blogs, talking to other authors, to figure out, alright, if I'm going to do it right, nobody knows who I am, no one's heard of Michael Webb, so I don't have anything to stand on, but how do I it right to get my name out there so I produce a book that's quality but also is something that people will find and enjoy reading and share with their friends.
I never had the aspirations of really making a profit or much less making a living off of it. So, it's been pretty cool. That was about three years ago when I started writing. My first book published April 2021, so that's about 15, 16 months ago now.
James Blatch: Okay. Well, we'll unpack some of that, but the focus on quality at the beginning, so funny enough, I've just been interviewed on another podcast, on Coldwell's Podcast, and I was telling her how I found it quite difficult to get my head into how novel writing worked. It doesn't matter how many books you've read in your life, you don't really understand the mechanics up until you're starting to write, and realisations that you contrive everything, but you've got to make it look subtle, and all these things that we go through as novelists.
It took me years to do that. If I had to add up the beginning part of it where I didn't know what I was doing and then the last three or four years, I think probably five or six years of writing and rewriting one book to get my first book out. It's been quicker since then.
You seem to have done all of that quite quickly.
Michael Webb: Yeah, it didn't feel quickly. But I think the biggest thing that helped, well it's a few different things, but one is, I'm huge reader going into it, and I know what I like. I write young adult epic fantasies. So, let's say reading those books, when you get to a moment of the book and you're cheering, you're just reading through pages, but suddenly you're smiling as you read because it's so exciting, or a moment when a character does something awesome, those moments stick with me.
When I think of my favourite books, I think of the ones that have several of those moments peppered in that I just get super pumped up about. So, when I first started writing, the number one thing I did was that I reverse engineered what are some moments I want to put in my book. So, I went back and thought through my favourites. I thought through, like in the Hunger Games where Candice is going through the training and she's testing and she scores the highest score out of everyone who was going through the different tributes.
And when I'm reading that, I'm, "Oh, that is so cool," that she was able to do that over all these other people. Or in Name Of The Wind, my all time favourite book, Kvothe is teaching at the university because this professor is awful and rude to him, and he says all, "All right. Well, why don't you just teach the class?" So, he goes up there and say, "All right, you're having to do it," and he blows everyone away with teaching and ends up embarrassing the professor.
But it's just this moment of everyone wants the chance to be that awesome, and to see this character who's overlooked or people don't give them much thought, and then all of a sudden they're raised to this level of appreciation, just really makes you excited about... moments. So, that's where I started. I said, "All right... I want to-
James Blatch: Sorry, I was going to say I love that aspect, but I was thinking about this yesterday, I was thinking about Danny Boyle films, the British film director who did things like 28 Days Later and Sunshine and the one where the guy cut his arm off, spoiler alert, I think he does the same thing, filmmaking. I think he thinks of this incredible set-piece scene, which is probably around the 90-minute mark of a two-hour film, and then he builds a film around it, and the score and the music and everything.
It's not a bad way of doing a story of having that moment and then thinking, "Okay, how do we get here?" As you say, reverse engineer it.
Michael Webb: Yeah. So, that's the approach I took in writing. I didn't have my plot, I didn't know what I was going to write, but I said, "All right, I want this to happen," and I'd put it on a piece of paper. "And I want this to happen, and this," not that I'm copying and putting it in, but I'm saying, what was the emotion, what was the feeling that the reader had in that moment, and how can I create a similar feeling in a situation that's something unique?
Then, I put those out on the paper. I had four of them in The Last Shadow Knight, my first book, my debut novel. So, I put those down as my pillars of the book. Then, I said, "Okay, how do we get to that place? All right, let's start here." Then, "How do we get from here to here? Okay, then we do a little of this?" Then, I think what's really helped me in the story creation was, it has these moments built in. I didn't just stumble into them, I purposefully created them.
I just recently read Seven Figure Fiction, the concept of universal fantasies. It's a book written toward romance novels, but it really applies to anywhere, but it's that same concept. I didn't realise it at the time, but I'm trying to build these moments that people, anybody reading, absolutely loves that concept, and so they get excited about the scene of what's going on.
I've heard it said, people don't want to be entertained, they want to be emotionally moved. So, trying to create these emotional responses, but through a setting that makes them cheer or makes them boo or whatever you're trying to create in that moment. But I think that it's end up working really well with the books I've published so far.
James Blatch: Can you give us some examples? You gave us some examples from films, but maybe from your stories of how you've done that, how you've come up with that moment that's going to be an emotional impact rather than simply a hero?
Michael Webb: I don't want to spoil alert too much of the stories, but that's okay. In The Last Shadow Night, the story centres around this kid who grows up on the streets and his parents had died and he finds this mentor, The Shadow Knights. There's these secret organisation, and he finds the last person that's this old guy, he's retired, but he brings them in and trains them like his apprentice.
As he's going on, basically, he used to be living on the streets and stealing and kicked to the curb, barely surviving, barely having food, and now he's training, he's learning, he's learning about sword fighting, he's getting educated, he's learning to read. Then, as the story goes on, there's this one character who's always bullied him. He was like a captain in the army. And they had these run-ins in the city all the time. His friend was actually killed by this guy.
Now, he's grown up and he's unrecognisable from what he was as a kid. He was this street urchin living in the gutters, and now he's this well-respected person in the city who's trained and educated. And they have this moment later, two thirds of the way through the book, where there's this, it's a dual but not a fighting, war. It's a stage competition, a friendly competition in this city of staff, a quarter staff competition.
And it ends up where the other guy is in it and Veron, the main character, is in it, and so it builds up to this moment where they're faced off as the two finalists. And he gets this opportunity to... The guy doesn't know it's him, but he obviously knows the captain, and he is able to defeat him. But he has this respect that he's standing up and the entire crowd, all the city is cheering for him, where he used to be the guy who was kicked down in the gutter and overlooked and nobody liked.
So, he's able to "defeat" this nemesis of his. So, it's a big moment of his and this triumph to see the progress that he's made over the course of the book and all the things he's learned. But it's a really cool moment for the reader to be able to see that and cheer with him.
James Blatch: Exactly. So, if you can get that moment where you know as a writer, if you've got it right, the reader's going to be punching the air type thing. As you explained that story, I was thinking about Gladiator, a film we all know, where finally Maximus kills the emperor. And that sounds grim, doesn't it, the way I say it, even now saying it out loud, but we all cheered, punched the air with that fight, because that had been such a journey for him, a road for him to that point that was the most gloriously served dish of revenge.
So, that's the inspiration we should take in trying to find those moments. So, you come up with that kind of...
That moment's not just isolated, you must have come up with a reasonable amount of that, it's going to be a long journey to get him to this point, or do you have this jewel in your mind first and then think, "Well, why is it so important to him," and then reverse engineer it that way?
Michael Webb: Sure. A lot of what I try to build are twists. I like turning the plot on its head, not ridiculous twists that completely come out of nowhere just for the sake of it, but well-placed changes about characters you didn't know who they were or someone comes from nowhere that is going to change everything of what's going on. So, I've got a lot of those built in, and I put those as a lot of my significant points that I try to build the story around that can build up to this twist, and then, bam.
There's one part in my second book, near the end, without fail, everybody who reads Rise Of The Shadow, my second book, they come back to me and then they said, "Holy cow, I did not see that coming." And it's just really cool because it builds up. And I had it in my mind way back when I'm writing book one, I'm, "Okay, the end of book two, there's going to be this awesome moment," and I built it up, all planning to get to that part.
James Blatch: Tell us about book one. You got it finished.
How much professional help did you then engage? Because getting started is, another thing I didn't really know how the editing process even worked. So, you researched all this at that point?
Michael Webb: I started without researching. I started just writing, putting words on paper. About halfway through, like I said, that's when I realised I don't want to just sell a few copies to friends and family, I want something that I could pull off a book on Barnes & Noble shelf and pull it up to mine and say, "This is just as good as that, if not better." So, I said, "All right, if I'm going to do that, I need to start researching."
So, when I finished my first draft, initially I thought, "All right, first draft, boom, I'm done. Print it, and send it off." But I'm, "Okay, I need to get it edited." So, before I got with a professional editor, I used alpha readers. So, not even beta readers. This was, "Hey, this is rough, it's out there. Give me some feedback. Am I completely off the mark here?" And of course I used the cardinal sin of friends and family because that's all I had.
But I got some good feedback from them. They weren't nearly harsh enough. When I look back and read my early stuff, it's whew, man, it needed help. But they helped me get it a bit cleaner. Then, I used a developmental editor. I hired someone to go through and help me with the structure, the plot, the characters, all that stuff.
It was mind-blowing the amount of information I learned as a writer, not just for this book, but just... Because I didn't know how to write. I wasn't trained as an author. I didn't practise on short stories and novelas. I jumped in away over my head.
So, the developmental editor comes back, and I'm crossing my fingers as I'm opening my email. I go, "What's she going to say, what's she going to say?" And I opened it up and there were track changes, it shows the amount of changes in the script, had 15,000 edits to review. And I'm, "Oh, my gosh."
James Blatch: That might be more than my first one, which is, I think, 11 or 12,000, but yeah. Wow.
Michael Webb: Yeah. But it's just a wrenching, "Oh my gosh, I am awful." But you get into it and it's, okay, this says it's a change, but really it's just changing these two words around. That's not a big deal, I can do that. Or, make a comment about a character, it's, "Oh, I can fix that. Let me add a sentence, and now that's solved." So, I worked through that, issue after issue.
Then, with them, I was new. My developmental editor gave it a second round. So, I was, "Okay, I've done my edits based on what you gave me." So, she took another look-through to give me more feedback, which was needed, because then, I'm, "Okay, I'm taking it to the next level." It's not just story editing. Now, it's getting a bit more polished through her professionalism.
It was still not great by that point. I didn't realise it yet, but I'm thinking, "Oh, man, I solved all these problems now. This is awesome." So, I got with some beta readers then. So, my alpha readers were really rough, my beta readers, I'm, "Okay, this is getting a little bit better." So, I had four beta readers in my first round, and they come back, they're tearing it up, "Well, you've gotta change this, fix that, do that." I'm, "Oh, my gosh, this is awful."
So, I'm going back in and I'm editing it all, and then I'm, "Okay, I changed that, but I'm not feeling good." So, I did another round of beta readers, had another three in that last round where I get more feedback, and now starting to feel good. I'm getting mostly all-positive responses from people. The comments they're making is, "Wow, this scene was great. I love this part. Oh, man," when something bad happens.
Then, I felt, all right, I can sit here revising this till the end of time. At some point I've got to just go on, and say, "Okay, this is good." I did get a copy editor in to go and help me just to make sure I'm not missing anything, all the grammar, the punctuation, the spelling, all that stuff. A lot more changes there.
A lot of the changes were really the flow of the writing, where it's not stilted sentences or using the same word too many times, a lot of that stuff got cut and edited. So, I had two rounds of developmental editing, one round of copy editing, a round of alpha readers, two rounds of beta readers. Without that, I wouldn't have sold five copies.
But I learned so much during that process. And I still, maybe not quite as much, but with my next two books and my fourth that I'm working on right now, I'm shortening a bit, but I'm still using alpha readers, I'm still using beta readers, I'm still getting developmental edit, I'm still getting a copy edit.
I'm finding it's much quicker and easier now that I know a bit more about what I'm doing. But that first book, that was my education session. I didn't go to college for writing, but I sure learned a lot through that first book because every edit I got back, every recommendation was something I'm absorbing it and now I'm learning it, and the next book I write, I'm hopefully doing it better the first time.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, that bit's exactly the same for me. I didn't do a creative writing course or go to college, but I learnt on the job, same as you, working with a coach and development...
I think the object lesson here, probably, Michael, is perseverance, dedication, and hard work, which, surprise-surprise is the key ingredients.
Michael Webb: Yeah, you can't just luck into this. There's a lot of luck involved, but there's a lot of hard work and you got to do things right. I feel very lucky, very fortunate with the results of my first book. It completely blew away any expectations I could have even thought about having, but I attribute a lot of that to hard work. I worked my butt off writing it and getting it to be a good novel that I'm proud of and that people review it and say amazing things. I'm, "Holy cow. Are they talking about the right book? They didn't post that on the wrong book?" But my confidence starts to build, and it's really cool to see.
James Blatch: Well, you've done really well. I can see, just looking at Amazon, it's got a couple thousand reviews already, that book one that was released in just over a year ago.
Michael Webb: Yeah. Just passed 2,000 on Sunday in the US, so I was pretty pumped about that.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's really good. And I think you said in your notes to me, you've tossed it out, you've probably sold 75,000 books now?
Michael Webb: No. 48,000-
James Blatch: Sorry. 48, okay.
Michael Webb: And that doesn't include audio. I don't have my audio numbers yet. I've released that with Podium, so I'm still waiting on my reports back from that. It's a little delayed.
James Blatch: So, let's talk about the marketing side of it. Obviously you've dedicated yourself to writing, but the marketing is the other side of the indie coin.
How did you set about marketing?
Michael Webb: I did it a lot. And I agree that, for most of the authors I talked with, a lot of them, they focus on the writing, they focus on the editing, and then sometimes their books don't sell, and, "Okay, what happened? How did yours sell and mine didn't?" I work my butt off on marketing in every way that I can think of. I went to School of Business, I specialised in marketing, not necessarily that what I'm doing now is the same, but I'm constantly thinking of ideas.
So, I did all the regular stuff. I created a website, I got on social media. I'm on Instagram and Facebook, Michael Webb Novels on there. I try to be active, engaging, posting content and pictures and updates and fun stuff. I've got a decent following. It's not huge. Instagram is not my best one.
I worked on building a launch team, so when my books come out, I'm trying to get these early readers, the ARC readers, to, "Okay, here's the copy, read it. Here's the date it's coming out. I really need your help. Help me promote it. Leave a review." Reviews were something that I was not prepared for how challenging that was.
James Blatch: To get them or to read them?
Michael Webb: To get them.
James Blatch: Oh, to get them.
Michael Webb: Well, to read them too. Both of those are tough. But getting reviews, it's so important, because if you don't have a rating or you don't have a review, there's no street cred for your book. No one's going to buy it if they didn't know that it's good. So, I got 50 people on my launch team for book one, and I thought, okay, some of them won't read it, some of them will read it and maybe won't review it. I'm, "All right. Hopefully within a week of launch I get 40 reviews."
These are good people. Most of them are friends and family. Because it's my first book, no one knows me yet. I had maybe six that left reviews, and I'm, "Ah, what is going on?" But it's just a challenge. And what I really did is for the first probably six months, every time someone contacted me saying that they had read my book, I'm immediately asking them, "Hey, if you haven't done so yet, could you go on Amazon and leave a review? Just honest review of what you thought."
So, I'm asking every time I get an email, every time I talk to someone. Eventually they take care of themselves, but you really have to get a lot of volume. So, the first book has sold about 25,000 copies, and it's had 2,000 reviews. So, I think that's a pretty good ratio. I put some fun stuff in the back of the book. I've got a picture my dog in there, the little story about him and how he wants you to leave a review. I think that helps with the ratio of getting them up, but it is difficult, it's a big challenge to get those responses.
James Blatch: Yeah, definitely. There are ways. In fact, there's a webinar we run occasionally on getting your first 10 reviews, which is tricky. We have five different ways of doing that, but very useful. A mailing list ultimately would be your friend there, building up a mailing list. I had a review popped up in my latest book, my second book recently, that was a weird negative review. I don't mind the negative, you get that, but it was a weird one. It said, "The ending was predictable."
I can't remember exactly what he said, but what he said was "Not the ending." So, I do think he stopped reading it and then guessed what was going to happen and said that was predictable, which is a weird thing to say. So, I just emailed the list. I didn't say why, I just said, "Look, reviews are really important to me. Any chance, if you haven't left one yet, you could leave one." I got five or six reviews. It just made sure that one just dropped down the list.
So, these things are important. I think to do two things, to look at what review Amazon has chosen to sit at the top, and then try and get that altered if it's not one that's really good for you. And secondly, just look at it, some people move the ratings to "most recent first" and have a look at that order. So, that's one area, reviews is one area. You say it's a key part of it. It's credibility, shop window and referral stuff. So, it's very important. But you obviously pushed your books.
Did you put some paid ads out for them in those early days?
Michael Webb: Very little. I did a few Amazon ads. I started bringing them down though because eventually I found probably 90% of my sales through Amazon was someone who searched Michael Webb or the Last Shadow Night.
James Blatch: They were already looking for you.
Michael Webb: I'm paying for an ad for someone who's already looking for a book. Not that that's bad. People talk about you want it to be at the top of the list, that's fine. But I scaled those down. I did maybe $50 a month in ads.
James Blatch: Okay.
Michael Webb: I dabbled in Facebook. I'm actually taking your course right now on Facebook ads. And I've figured it out that, not that it's figured out successful, but how to do it now that I'm working toward that. So, I'm going to ramp up my Facebook ads. But I didn't do much ads. That was very little of the sales I had. When I first started, I think the toughest thing that I figured out is, you've got to get over the hump, because once you do, Amazon will sell your book for you with almost no effort. And it blows my mind.
One of my readers let me know she got an Amazon delivery, and she got an Amazon Echo, and it says, "Oh, you have... your blah blah, blah has been delivered. By the way, Michael Webb has a new novel out, The Shadow Of Destiny. Would you like to hear the description?" So, the Echo is reading and advertising my book for me. But they send out emails all the time, and I think most of my sales come from that halo effect at Amazon, it sticks up high in the ratings.
So, what I've figured out is, you have to work hard every sale, every review. At the beginning, you have to get that traction because no one knew who I was. It was about three months before I published The Last Shadow Knight, I started reaching out to book bloggers and reviewers. I contacted probably 120 different book bloggers of just a cold pitch, saying, "Hey, I've got this book..." I'm sure they get them all the time. "I'd love to send you a free copy, a read, if you can read and post it."
I got maybe 10 responses out of all the 120 or whatever I send out. That was a challenge. I worked on Instagram trying to network with people, trying to find other writers, "Hey, let me read your book, you read my book." So, I did a lot of that. I didn't do a good job of building a mailing list at the beginning. I wish I had started with a reader magnet, started a novella. I do have a novela now which I give out to build my mailing list. It's a prequel. It's called Shadow Knight's Origin, and it's awesome.
I love it because I wrote book one and two, and I'm, "Now I've figured out how to write, let me do this novella," and it is awesome. It's packed. 90 pages of action-packed, just leads straight into the story. I love it. If anyone's interested, at michaelwebbnovels.com I'll give you a free novella. Sign up for my mailing list.
James Blatch: Never stop marketing.
Michael Webb: Exactly. Yeah, it's just, being on here, creative marketing, I'm here talking with James Blatch on your podcast, it's just a chance to get my name out. A huge part of my success I attribute to is my cover. I absolutely love my cover designer. He does fantastic work. And that's the number one biggest comment I get when I was absolutely no one and no one knew who I was, "Holy cow, that's an amazing cover." That's what I heard from everybody. It really stands out, it really conveys that epic fantasy, young adult-ish vibe.
I get so much traction from that. And when I do in person sales, I got a big banner, a big 7' banner, whatever it is, and it's got the cover on it, people will flock from across the room and they're, "Wow, I saw that banner. Let's talk cause that's what I'm interested in."
James Blatch: I was going to say, what we say about the cover that there's number one lesson we try go on about is, it's only job really is just tell you at a glance what the book is so you can connect with the correct readers, as long as it dovetails with what the story is. And, oh my goodness, at a glance, your cover does that job. And it's a great cover, but it's most important thing is it just tells people what the book is, and, "Oh, I like reading those sort of books."
Michael Webb: Yeah, that's a struggle. Whenever I see other books, you see it, okay, that looks nice, but I have no idea what it is.
James Blatch: Yeah, that's no good.
Michael Webb: You see the book title, you see the cover and you're just guessing, and by this time I've moved on. So, I think the cover has been a big part of the success. I did some other paid things. I signed up for a book tour with my first book. I don't know how effective it was. It cost a couple hundred dollars. I got readers. They had great reviews. They left it on their Instagram or Twitter, wherever, and posted it and on Good Reads and Amazon. They loved the book. But was it worth it for the amount of money I paid? I don't know.
But I see, especially in your first book, no publicity is wasted even if you paid a bit too much, because like I said, it's getting over that hump. You have to get that traction so Amazon will do that work for you. So, I would do it again just because I wouldn't want to change anything, and the book has been very successful. I did a couple Good Reads giveaways. Were those worth it? Again, I don't know, maybe, but I'm not going to fault it because the end result is good.
I think what I've tried to do the most is creative marketing, thinking outside... Those are mostly the obvious things. Pay for an ad here, build a mailing list, do you get a launch team, podcasts. I've spoken on probably a dozen different podcasts talking about my book, talking about writing. It's a great chance to get my face out, get my name out and people to hear about my books.
Actually, next summer, still tentative, but there's a writer's conference I'm going to be speaking at as one of the featured speakers talking about launching debut novels. So, I'm super pumped about that.
James Blatch: Is that us? Who is that?
Michael Webb: No, it's not you. Well, let's talk afterwards. I'm happy to come-
James Blatch: I know Mark does the schedule, so I wouldn't know, but I...
Michael Webb: No. So, I currently still work a day job. I work for Ferguson Enterprises. They're a plumbing distribution company. I manage a shared purchasing centre. I've been with them 20 years. Great company, great people to work for. So, it's tough to want to leave that because I really enjoy that group, but-
James Blatch: Do you have a plot to leave, a plan to leave?
Michael Webb: Not right now. Maybe down the road one day, but as long as I'm still enjoying what I'm doing, I'm able to balance both at the time, which is great. Gives me the best of both worlds. But I found out we've got, it's called Yammer. It's a social media site, internal, within Ferguson. So, when I published my third book, my trilogy was finished, The Shadow Knight trilogy, I've got three awesome looking covers, and I did a post of me holding all three books, "Hey, just celebrating a big win," because this is just a social media thing. I had 20,000 people see that, and there were a 1,000 comments on it.
James Blatch: Wow.
Michael Webb: So, it's just a great connection that I don't even know how many sales I got from that, but a tonne. People were saying, "Hey, are you going to be up at headquarters? I'd love to get autographed copies of it." Or my college I went to, Berry College in Georgia, they've got an alumni magazine. So, I've got an article mention coming up in the next magazine that comes out that's going to publicise me for having the trilogy out as, "Hey, past alumni, Michael Webb, and successfully debut a trilogy."
James Blatch: No stone is left unturned.
If there's something that you think will work, and even if it's an author audience, you still find there's value in that for you?
Michael Webb: Authors are readers, probably more so than the readers even. I also spend a lot of time on Facebook groups, not to market myself but to interact, to engage. And I learn a lot. There're tonnes of different groups out there with very large audiences. So, if you can bring some quality content for the purpose of sharing it with others about... My journey through writing the book, how I marketed it, how I sold X number of copies, I posted that in some Facebook groups.
And I didn't mention my book or anything about it, but actually, on my one year anniversary I wrote a post outlining everything that I did. My book jumped up to number one in its category two days after that, just because all these people are seeing and liking and sharing and commenting and buying my books.
James Blatch: And of course, again, the Amazon algorithm notices that increased traffic. And Amazon algorithm, the one thing it likes is something that's selling, so if you start selling it, it starts selling it for you.
Michael Webb: Right. Yeah, exactly. So, I've got a website, I sell merchandise. Shadow Knight's Academy, I've got a T-shirt. I've got a cool logo, and we've got hats that are on there as well just to... I don't-
James Blatch: So, you finished the trilogy, The Shadow Knight 3. What is next then?
Michael Webb: I'm working on two projects right now. So, the first one I am so pumped up about, because I've had this idea way back since I started. I love treasure hunting stories and I love fantasy. So, I'm combining the two into a fantasy treasure hunt series called the Treasure Hunter's Alliance. The first one will probably be out January. My goal was to publish probably every four months, but I'm billing it as Indiana Jones meets Harry Potter.
James Blatch: Okay.
Michael Webb: So, it's this epic fun, here's this mysterious artefact, oh, it leads to a clue and I'm going to go find here, and then, whoa, this person's not who thought he was, and wow, I just found this amazing relic and now it's worth tonnes of money but the bad guys are after it. That Indiana Jones, National Treasure, Uncharted, all these movies or books that... I have that kid-like enjoyment of searching for treasure, so I want to capture that into a story writing now that I've figured out how to write stories, and it's going to be really cool. So, I'm pumped to get that out. But the other one I'm working on concurrently is Shadow Knight's second trilogy.
So, the first one is story arc books 1-3, but the second, it's the same world, same characters. It's going to be a 16-year gap in between them. So, that's going to be coming out probably late next year, because what I want to do, what I wish I did on my first book, I wouldn't actually change it because things worked out fine, but I would've loved to have been able to publish them closer together, because I was about eight or nine months between books.
And across the board I always heard, "When's the next book out," day one of publishing a book. Give me time. Hold on. Some people were upset. One person gave me a one-star review on Amazon because absolutely love the series, but the last book's not out yet. I'm, "Ah, is that worth a one-star review?"
James Blatch: Yeah. Thanks.
Michael Webb: So, my thought for the next trilogy is, it is one story. Yes, it's three books, but it tells one story. I don't want to leave people hanging. So, I'll probably do it maybe two months apart in publishing them. My hope is to finish all that. Then, another benefit of that is, by writing all that before you publish any, if I get into book three and say, "You know what, I really want to change this," I can go back to book one and make little tweaks.
James Blatch: Although with indie publishing and eBooks, you can do that anyway. It's not a major change, but...
Michael Webb: I've snuck in a few things here and there.
James Blatch: Of course. We've all done that.
Michael Webb: Yeah. Yeah.
James Blatch: I picked up these physical copies of my books for the interview I was doing just now, and I made the mistake of opening them and looking at a couple of pages and immediately saw things, "Oh, my God, just reword that sentence." Resist. Resist, leave it. Look, we're running out of time. It's been fantastic talking to your energy machine, and I'm very impressed with your application and the fact that you've figured a lot of this out along the way.
So, some important takeaways. That one I mentioned earlier is a really important one, it's hard work, and you apply yourself and make sure everything's the best it can be. But secondly, just not leaving those stones unturned, just finding ways. You don't have to be pushy about it, you're just promoting the product, a book and people, and if it's the right person, they'll appreciate the fact you brought it to their attention. That's a good way of thinking about it. But you've certainly got that right, Michael.
Michael Webb: Thank you. Yeah. I loved it. I can't wait to get more books out. I've got all these stories in my head, and I just need the time to write. So, lots more to come, but it's been a fantastic journey.
James Blatch: Well, at some point, Ferguson's going to have to be the loser in this relationship, but anyway, not yet. All right. Well, we appreciate it, and thank you so much indeed for coming on.
Michael Webb: Yep. Thank you, James.
James Blatch: There we go. I think how much the landscapes changed from your day because you got going completely in the dark. I can remember you with The Black Mile book, writing it. It was a bit of a tome, it was not quite a big book, and trying to get it toned, I always say that wrong, trying to get it going, whereas today I've basically learned from people like you. And this was even before you discovered, I think, Hugh Howey and people like that when you first wrote The Black Mile.
I've learned from people like you, the best in the industry, I've streamlined everything and given myself a much better start. So, that's why people like Michael are useful to talk to from that point of view because they are employing all the best practises that they come across. But thanks. So, you obviously wasted all your money and time to get us to where we are.
Mark Dawson: I did. Yeah, it took me a long time, but I figured out in the end. And yeah, it's very different landscape these days. It was when I started, I didn't really know anybody. I didn't know anybody at all. And it was places like Kboards that were important in those days before it descended into the toxic mess it is today. But it was great in those days, you're able to learn from people who were doing really well and forging a path that no one had taken before, and I was able to look at what they were doing and try and tweak it for how I would highlight to work. And it worked pretty well. It's been 10 years nearly. Never entirely sure. When I did start publishing, I need to check, it probably is around about 10 years now-
James Blatch: Yeah, I think it's more than that, isn't it? You must have published around '09.
Mark Dawson: Maybe. Yeah, maybe it's longer. I'm trying to think when the first Milton book came out, but I had published a couple before that, so I need to check.
James Blatch: Yeah, maybe.
Mark Dawson: Just look on Amazon, it would tell me, but-
James Blatch: Yeah, exactly. This is soulful. They've all done that. Listen to this. Yeah, so it was some time ago. Good. Anyway, I hope the interview was as useful to you as it was for me.
And one more thing I think we will talk about, Mark, but haven't got huge amounts of saying at the moment in terms of detail, but some people have noticed, and I've posted into the mastery group about this, that Amazon have introduced something called "attribution links", Amazon Attribution, which is inside your Amazon ads dashboard, at least in .com and .co.uk. I haven't checked in the other territories, it may well be there as well.
And what does this mean? These are links that will link to your product or whichever product you choose, and they will track any sales that come as a result of that. They work exactly like an affiliate link, but there is no affiliate payment attached to them. It's for tracking the effectiveness of your Facebook ads, for instance, have your email newsletters, your social media posts and so on. So, you create the links, use those unique identifiers that you will follow and then put them in place and work out how your campaign's doing.
Now, the reason I haven't got a lot to say about this at the moment is because I have in the midst of trying to generate the data. So, I've had to up my campaigns, Mark, because £20 a day is not going to do it in terms of the data I need to be able to optimise. So, expect an expense claim at some point. But they are working at the moment.
There is, as a lot of us are discovering, these early adopters, as I like to think of myself, there is quite a significant lag in the data coming through and potentially a bit of a mismatch between how many clicks Facebook's saying we got that should have gone to the page, where else can you give you go, you've clicked on it, and how many clicks are showing up. So, it might just be the data takes 24 or more hours, maybe in 48 hours to come through.
So, digging into it, there will be a module, if you're in Ads for Authors, to explain how to use it, not just how to use it, but how we should be employing it, and I'll give you a good way of organising yourself around that. And I think we'll talk about it in more detail, Mark, when we know a bit more about how it's working, how effective it is, and a bit more about the landscape. But I think it's a significant moment for us.
Mark Dawson: It's very significant. It's been in beta for about 18 months. So, I'd learned about it a long time ago. I haven't used it because I use affiliate tracking most of the time, but this is long overdue. Amazon should have done this ages and ages ago, and it gets around the issue of Amazon affiliate, the affiliate programme not really liking you putting your links in social media advertising, for example. And I think the reason for that, in fact, I know it is, is because it's FTC, so it's making money off the ad is a problem, potentially.
So, by removing that element of the programme that they run with the affiliate scheme, it gets around the problem. But being able to have trackable links that give you sales data is critically important. When I figured out what to do eight years ago when I was running my first Facebook ads, it was an eye-opening moment, because otherwise, you can get clicks but you don't know if they're actually doing anything.
So, to be able to track the other end of the equation and to work out what money you are actually making from ads is a real game changer. So, this makes it a lot easier. There are less hoops to jump through. You don't need to get the account approved, you don't need to have the Amazon branding on the account, you don't have any of the issues in terms of service, all of that stuff. So, really a big moment. We will probably maybe even dedicate an episode nearer to the ad's launch in January next year.
James Blatch: Yeah, I think so. And there'll be a module on this, which I will do. We'll also update the Facebook ads course and the bits and pieces where we talked about affiliate links. I guess we could still leave them in there, but the reason you were talking about affiliate links in your module, that stage, Mark, I think it was for the tracking, right? That was the main purpose.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. It's definitely not for money. Over the years I have made quite a lot of money through the affiliate programme, but that isn't the reason why you want to use them. You just need the data, otherwise you are just guessing whether your ads are working, which isn't really sustainable in the long-term, especially not if you're spending a lot of money.
James Blatch: No. Although I will say, I was having a chat yesterday with an author potentially going to join us on Fuse, and she was saying she looks at the data she gets back from the affiliate links as to what other people have bought to try and profile her reader a bit, which is, that is the sort of thing that happens in industry, that data, or who Google can basically profile our buying habits and all sorts of habits. And that's so useful in marketing. So, there is something to be said for that.
You do get some weird and wonderful things bought alongside your books, don't you, sometimes?
Mark Dawson: I've had some very strange things, which is probably not for a family podcast, but yeah, very interesting.
James Blatch: Yeah. So, if people don't understand what we're talking about here, affiliate links, once someone's clicked on it, bought Mark's book, you can track and see that it's gone through there. If within 24 hours they buy something else, you get a cut of that, but you actually see what the product was. So, if they bought a lawn mower, if you're lucky, they bought a JCB digger for a quarter of a million pounds, but unlikely on Amazon. But I think somebody bought a really expensive watch once for you. Didn't you get $300 or something ridiculous?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, I've had a couple of big televisions and things occasionally I've had, which, certainly a small percentage, two or 3%, but that can add up over time.
James Blatch: Yeah. Anyway. Okay. So, that is tracking links. It's called Amazon Attribution. Go find it, start having a play. You can look, they've got a very basic set of videos. One video I think in there to tell you how to use it. But if you're in the ads course, of course you're going to get the unexpurgated gen of how to deploy them effectively.
Right, that's it, Mark. Thank you very much indeed. I know you're under the knife tomorrow, so maybe the last time we see you. So, good luck. Thanks for everything. Can I have your Porsche or it's probably not paid off, is it?
Mark Dawson: No. Damn. You can't, no.
James Blatch: Can I come and swim in your pool?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, you can probably do that. Bit cold at the moment though.
James Blatch: All right. Okay, it's a minor thing, don't worry. Thank you very much indeed to everyone behind the scenes who helped to put this show together. Couldn't do it without you. And thank you very much for listening, and of course, to Mike Webb, our guest this week. All that remains for me to say is, it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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