SPS-364: Ten Years of Indie Publishing – with Mark Dawson and James Blatch
After 10 years of self-publishing, Mark Dawson shares with us some of the key insights from his author career that has seen him publish dozens of thriller novels and sell 6 million copies of his books.
- Audiobook proofing and distribution (Wide or Exclusive?)
- How Mark got started in self-publishing
- Mark’s writing process for his thrillers and next book projects
- The essential role of advertising in self-publishing success
- Mark’s advice to authors getting started
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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SPS-364: Ten Years of Indie Publishing - with Mark Dawson and James Blatch
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self Publishing Show.
James Blatch: Mutual colleague of ours, who I'll name check, Jim Cliff, said to you, "God, have you uploaded a book to Kindle? I'm actually selling it and making money." And a little thing went ding in your heard at that point, and that was the beginning of this phase of your life, wasn't it?
Mark Dawson: My little thing went ting. That's interesting.
James Blatch: Your ting-a-ling.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome to our Christmas edition of The Self Publishing Show. I'm James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And I'm Mark Dawson. We could say, Self Publishing Show, ho, ho," couldn't we?
James Blatch: Could have said that. I thought you were going to say you're Father Christmas, look at you. If you're watching on YouTube, we are wearing our Christmas jumpers and you look a little bit like Santa.
Mark Dawson: Hey, you're saying I need to go to the barbers, which is true, I do.
James Blatch: Your white flowing locks, white flowing beard. Yes, I'm wearing my Star Wars Christmas jumper. Can't really tell. It's Empire Strikes Back, frozen Hoth.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, it looks like Hoth. Yes, absolutely. Very nice.
James Blatch: So you may be listening to this in June, of course. Lots of people listen to the podcast throughout the rest of the year, but we're recording it and it is snowy and frozen where I am in the UK so it's looking nice, although I think it's probably going to warm up a bit before Christmas. We won't get that white Christmas. My daughter will get a white Christmas in the mountains in Canada.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, absolutely.
James Blatch: Okay. So it's a kind of a special edition of this. Not only is it the holidays, as they say in America, I'm not sure why they say that, it's the holidays. We're also going to talk to Mark about him because it's an anniversary for you, Mark, is it not? In fact, I don't think you even knew this was your anniversary until Amazon told you.
Mark Dawson: I thought it was next year. I was wrong. So yeah, I got an email from Darren at Amazon a couple months ago, I suppose, or no, early in November and said that my 10-year anniversary when I first pressed publish was the, I think the 24th of November 2012. I thought it was next year, but what I'd forgotten was I actually uploaded a version of my first book, my first trad book in 2012. And then I think I did my first, The Black Mile, was 2013 I think, so I was experimenting a year before I thought I was. So actually yes, under, I think it was, as I said, the 24th of November I think was my 10th anniversary as an indie author, which was turned out to be quite a good decision.
James Blatch: Yes, it did turn out to be a good decision. So we're going to go through that a little bit, dissect it a bit to what you've done, where you are, a bit about your writing process. You're going to be the interviewee for this episode. A couple of things to talk about first, before then, we do have a Facebook Ads challenge, going to be really good. If Facebook Ads are something that you are yet to master, this is the challenge for you to go on. We're going to do it in January. We're going to do it in the Facebook group which we've set up a link to, which is selfpublishingformula.com/facebookchallenge, all one word. So selfpublishingformula.com/facebookchallenge.
That will take you to a Facebook group, which is called Facebook for Authors. Join that group and that will be a place where you'll get your challenge, Seven Days in January, and you'll get supported by us and by each other to take you through that. And by the end of that process, you'll have your foot in the door of, still to this day, very important platform for authors, Facebook Ads, and number one for me. I do always play about with Amazon Ads. I have got one Amazon Ads campaign looking all right for me at the moment, but Facebook Ads are the, for me, personally, are the driver. I know other authors, it is Amazon Ads but... And TikTok.
And there you go, talking of TikTok, we should mention that Caroline Peckham and Susanne Valenti, two sisters who we've had on the podcast before, spoke at our live conference based in Kent, here in the UK, launched their eighth book in the Zodiac Academy yesterday. And of course, by lunchtime it was number one in the entire dot-com store. Congratulations to them. I didn't see it get to number one in the UK but it was on its way, and I think it was number one in Australia. And it's so many pages long, if you order the paper back you can start to hear the Laurie reversing towards your house. Caroline was on TikTok last night saying, "They're having problems getting the paper back to go live." That's probably 'cause it's 916 pages or something but it's a very, very big book. But fans adore it, and they do so well. There is a couple of writers in the indie space killing it, Mark.
Mark Dawson: Yes. So number 10 at the moment in the UK, but that's at 8.99, so it's not a cheap ebook. Good for them. It's people pricing books level, which is still obviously good value for such a big book. And so it's not hard to work out that's doing quite well financially for them. So it's lovely to see. Good for them. Just because I zoned out moment ago, we did give the URL for the challenge, didn't we?
James Blatch: We did. Yes.
Mark Dawson: Good.
James Blatch: I gave it twice. Yeah.
Mark Dawson: Good. Well done. Excellent.
James Blatch: I have, we-
Mark Dawson: Give it a third time just because so I can make sure you got it right.
James Blatch: A third time, is selfpublishingformula.com/facebookchallenge. All one word.
Mark Dawson: Very good.
James Blatch: Yeah, so I'm just having a look to see whilst we're on the subject of this, how they're doing in the dot-com store. Have you seen that, they're still there at...? Top 100. They're number one in the dot-com store today.
Mark Dawson: Ah, very good.
James Blatch: One place ahead of Morgan Elizabeth. Meghan Quinn, who's been on the show, friend of the show, is number three. Yep. Contemporary romance killing it.
Mark Dawson: Claire Kingsley.
James Blatch: Claire Kingsley. That's fantastic to see Claire, How the Grump Solved Christmas, that was a brilliant addition from Claire. Yeah, we were with Claire in Florida and she works closely with Lucy's Score, is a good friend of hers, and she's such a lovely person so that's really good. Yeah, isn't it lovely to look at the top 100 and see people who you know killing it in that chart, it's really good. Colleen Hoover's there as well, of course. Colleen, if you're listening, we would love to have you on the show. I have emailed you a couple of times but to no avail so far. Maybe you don't see the emails because you're so incredibly popular. You probably have a very big inbox.
Anyway, we're talking about selling books and doing well. I've just mentioned, I've got two events publishing-wise. I've finished my third book, which is a novella. Have a call with the copy editor after this meeting actually after this recording and that goes to him. So that's going to be out probably in January, end of January, beginning of Feb. And I've got my audio files for book two yesterday, so I've uploaded those to ACX, to Audible, and they are currently in review. Don't know how that's going to go.
Mark Dawson: Have you proofed them?
James Blatch: No,
Mark Dawson: You haven't proofed.
James Blatch: I haven't.
Mark Dawson: Why haven't you proofed them.
James Blatch: Because there's nine and a half hours of listening., I haven't got time.
Mark Dawson: Oh, well, maybe should probably get something to do that because there might be mistakes, it's not unusual.
James Blatch: Do you proof all your audiobooks?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, well I don't 'cause I have mine produced by other people, but you absolutely should do.
James Blatch: Well, mine's been proofed by the production company but they've delivered them to me. But you're saying that I should proof them as well?
Mark Dawson: I think someone should, yes. Yeah, I do. So I, for the journals-
James Blatch: I don't have 10 hours in my life to sit and listen to that book.
Mark Dawson: No, you don't. But you don't have time but you do have money so you can sometimes pay some. This is going to be too late now, but what I would do is pop a poster in the Facebook group and see if anyone wants to own a little bit of Christmas pocket money and have a fun, enjoyable read at the same time all your readers. But that's the same as anything else, really. It is probably okay if it's gone through a professional body but you've only got their word for it would, and it's not their reputation on the line if they've made mistakes. So yeah, I would always check.
James Blatch: I sampled it, obviously, I listened to the whole of chapter one.
Mark Dawson: Well, technical errors will be picked up in the uploading process. And if there's anything even remotely off, if the bit rate is wrong they'll pick it up and tell you, but they won't proof it for content. No one listens to it, it's all automatic. So anyway, that's what I would do. It's up to you if you want to gamble.
James Blatch: Right. No, I'll do that. It takes a while for it to be turned around. So if we need to come up with something, I'm sure I could email them and say, "I need to address the files."
Mark Dawson: You do. You should basically get your son to do it. He must be looking for a bit of Christmas pocket money.
James Blatch: I can't get him to shovel snow or cut the lawn or do anything. Honestly, that is the generation that don't think they can actually do anything. He looked at the cooker, said, "Well, how am I supposed to operate that?" I said, "Well, you teach yourself." He's not going to do that. Emily would do it, but she's not here. But I will, yes, potentially. I do have a couple of people I know are waiting for the audio book. So I could send them the files and they could do that. Okay. Thanks for that bit of extra work. Thank you. But I'm excited about having that. So I'm making profit now. Not a huge profit, I think I've said before, and it's not as big as it was a month ago when I was projecting like seven and a half grand a year. It's not going to be that now, it just ebbs and flows a bit, but last month is less than that.
Mark Dawson: Are you saying made more than the median author income on two books?
James Blatch: My income I think was about 13,000 pounds, but I spent a lot of money on advertising. So the profit was low, but I passed 10,000 books. Did I mention that last time?
Mark Dawson: You did? Yeah. That's very good. Yeah, you didn't mention, but I saw your Facebook post.
James Blatch: Yeah, so I passed 10,000 book sales.
Mark Dawson: I was told off about that. My first response though was "average" and then I put, "Well done," smiley face. Lisa saw the first and-
James Blatch: I didn't see that.
Mark Dawson: Lisa saw the first and said, "You're so mean. And I think James knows I'm only playing." Then she said, "But what about James's friends?" And I went, "Well, I don't care about James's friends." Anyway. No, I deleted it so you didn't see that one.
James Blatch: How Grinch of you.
Mark Dawson: It's very good. 10,000 copies is excellent.
James Blatch: Yeah, thank you very much. And the way I've calculated that, because a couple of people have asked who know how this works, is that is every copy of every book. So that's eBooks print onto mine. That's KENP divided by the normalised page numbers to give me a... But they're paid for pages and audiobooks as well. Although the vast majority, I think five and a half thousand of those were e-books, so the rest big chunk was page reads. And then audio books I think I've done knocking on 600 audiobooks.
Mark Dawson: That's very good, very good.
James Blatch: The audiobooks has been surprising for me. It's been a little bit slow again the last few weeks, but up until recently it's basically, it was a book and a half a day. So I was getting 45 sales a month without really targeting that. So I think that is the hot area at the moment, audio books.
We've had this conversation before, but my next decision really is whether I stick with a Audible exclusive or I go wide onto Spotify with my audio books. Do you have a view on that, oh master?
Mark Dawson: I would probably stay exclusive probably just because you get slightly higher royalty. It's quite a lot less if you go wide. And I experimented with wide with a couple of the German books. I think it was the German books and couldn't sell any. And I just didn't have time to... Obviously there are things you can do to sell more, but that was one of the things I just don't have time to do, so it's a little easier for me just to put them on Amazon. And you're still getting them into iTunes and Audible, places like that through that route.
And Spotify is quite new to the game yet, so I think it potentially in a year's time it might be a very viable platform, but I'm not convinced it's there yet. Actually, if you try and buy a book on Spotify, it's very painful. So if you go on your iPhone, for example, just go to audio books and then try to buy it will come up with the page saying, "We know this is not optimal," or, "We know this is painful," but because Apple would take 30% of any sales through their platform, you have to go to a website, buy the book, and then it appears in your account on your phone. So it's really clunky. But no, I imagine they'll fix that eventually. Yes.
James Blatch: Yeah. That was a bit of a bar to entry at the moment for a lot of readers. Okay. Well, that's my piddly little news. My average news. You're more exciting and illustrious career. Let me start at the end, how many Milton books do you have now?
Mark Dawson: 21, 22 out next year.
James Blatch: How do you-
Mark Dawson: Plus there's novella's probably with everything, it's probably nearer 30 now.
James Blatch: What? Just Milton?
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Or very connected very closely to him. But yeah, something along those lines.
James Blatch: Yeah. So you have Milton, you had Beatrix Rose and her daughter. Was that a separate series or was that...?
Mark Dawson: That's a separate series, Isabella. Yeah, it's six, five books in that series. Yeah, five books, five or six books beatrix, five or six for Isabella, two for Atticus. And three or four kids books.
James Blatch: Oh yeah.
Mark Dawson: Which you co-write.
Yes. A couple of standalones. So yeah, all in all it must be between 50 and 60 now.
James Blatch: Milton is your bread and butter financially.
Mark Dawson: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, whenever I release in Milton book, the one that you know can see. My accountant said to me the other day, "What happened in September?" And I was like, "Oh yeah, that was a Milton release." So you can definitely notice.
James Blatch: Yeah. And are you going to go back to the Rose girls, women?
Mark Dawson: Yes. Actually, because spoiler alert, Beatrix make it out of her trilogy. I've gone back and done some prequels with her, so that I have an Audible exclusive out so just audio first, they go a year where it's not available anywhere else. That's going to be, it must be early next year, and that's Gemma Whelan narrating that from Game of Thrones again, so that'll be fun. And for Isabella, her story continues. I'm contracted with the audiobook people I use, Howes and Tantor, that there's a sixth book, fifth book, see I can't remember, a sixth, I think, contracted with them. So I'll write that in the next 18 months or so. And then we'll see. They're fun as a palette cleanser. They're much more fast-paced, action-based, whereas Milton tends to be a little bit slower, a bit more realistic. Takes me a little bit longer to write, but on the other hand probably sells three times as many. So financially, if I was just doing this financially, I'd probably be writing Miltons all the time and nothing else, but that might get boring.
James Blatch:And when you are this deep into a series, I'm starting to think about book four. I don't really have the story yet, I think I've got an opening scene and a vague idea. But how quickly do stories come to you? By the time you finished a previous book are you ready to go on the next one?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, definitely. Probably ready for the next two. So there's loads of ideas. So for example, I'm probably, as the time we're recording this, the cryptocurrency exchange scam, well, not scam, but there was an exchange that went down and the-
James Blatch: FTX. Yeah.
Mark Dawson: FTX. Yeah. And the guy is in The Bahamas, he's been arrested, he's going to get extradited back to the States, I suspect. And that's interesting to me. I think that could be something that Milton could get involved with. There's a cryptocurrency scam from about five years ago called OneCoin. That
James Blatch: "One coin to rule them all." Was that their tagline.
Mark Dawson: It kind of was, actually. That was very close to what the tag was an there's a very good BBC podcast called The Search for the Missing Cryptoqueen that was really good. And they're talking about six or seven billion Euros in terms of the scam, which is, if you think about it, robbing that much money from people who couldn't afford it. You've got Kenyan farmers who sold the goats that their family depended on because they were sold on this as they didn't want to miss out on what they were promised was the unlimited wealth. That's prime Milton, so I'll probably do something along those lines next year. But yeah, just keep your eyes open on the news. Obviously I'm quite heavily invested in Ukraine at the moment with what we've done this year with the family that live with us. And so I'd quite like to write about that in some capacity. Milton could be involved, could go and find someone in Ukraine would be interesting to write about. So yeah, it's easy. I don't have a problem with finding ideas, just basically read the newspapers and there will always be something.
James Blatch: Do you have a notepad by your bed side table on your bedside-
Mark Dawson: No, I don't, but obviously I've got my phone, so I have a little note where I'll-
James Blatch: You shouldn't go to bed with your phone.
Mark Dawson: So I'm told. But it's never bothered me particularly. I'll just open the notepad and scribble something down if anything comes to mind. So yeah, I've got maybe six ideas I could pick from any one time and start writing.
James Blatch: I'm a bad one for not getting off my phone. So I'll go to bed, Jill's normally asleep, it's all dark, and you just start scrolling and that's the worst thing to do 'cause it keeps you awake. So now, for some time now, I've kept the phone downstairs. But the only thing I regret is occasionally I hear an old aircraft going overhead and I know there's an old Antonov, an AN24 that slips around Europe hauling cargo. It's a 1951 aircraft and it's very distinctively noisey. This old Russian built Antonov, and I hear it droning overhead and I think that must be it and I want to look it up, but that's my life, Mark. That's what I'm miss.
Mark Dawson: God, you're boring
James Blatch: "Jill," I'll wake her up, "Jill. The Antonov's overhead again." Anyway. Okay. So let's go back a bit to the beginning then. So that's your life now. Lots of books, lots of writing.
Mark Dawson: No, not really. I know the book I'm writing finishing this, I'm about 85,000 words through the third Atticus book and I've taken a break because I've written a novella this month that I'm rushing to get out of Christmas, which I thought about 30,000 words this month, I thought it might not be possible, but actually I think it might, so depending on how things go. So that one is called Sand Storm, that will be out probably by Christmas. The next Atticus one is coming in the last, I'm on the home straight now, but it's getting to the denouement, which is a little bit more tricky to write with lots of threads to tie up, twists to go back and elaborate on, which will probably take me another month or two I suspect, to get that finished. Then it's going to be Uppercut, which is the next Milton book. And then we'll see, probably another Milton. I wouldn't mind writing three Miltons next year and maybe an Atticus.
James Blatch: Your accountant would like you to write three Miltons next year?
Mark Dawson: I'm sure he would, yeah. So yeah, we'll see. The last Milton book ends on what I'd call an open loop. So it's not really a cliffhanger, although some readers might disagree with me about that. But it has disposed of the threads in that book. But it's left an arc, a traditional TV arc that will continue through the next three or four books. And the next one, Uppercut, won't touch on that directly, although I'll hint at it. And then the next one, which might be called The Dead Road, I think then might address that in a bit more head on, but we'll see. A soft reboot, I suppose, the 21st book because I wanted Milton to have a bit more jeopardy in his story. So he goes back on the run again, the whole kind of A team, pursued by Colonel Decker.
James Blatch: Yeah. If you could find him.
Mark Dawson: Yes, exactly. Jailed for a crime he didn't commit.
James Blatch: Yeah. It's interesting how TV do that all the time with series, they'll lend a series on the cliffhanger and so you can't wait for the next series and no one complains about it but-
Mark Dawson: Well they do.
James Blatch: They do.
Mark Dawson: They complain about them.
James Blatch: I think it's standard on a TV series.
Mark Dawson: I think there's a little different reaction you get from readers and viewers. Just thinking of House of the Dragon, the HBO series, Game of Thrones prequel, that, again, it's not a cliffhanger because they've disposed of all the plot lines that they developed in that first series. But it does end on, without spoiling it, a fairly shocking moment that you want to get back into. It is kind of a cliffhanger but it's addictive and there is a reason why TV shows individually will end on open loops and then end of series where we usually do the same thing to get you into the next series.
But yeah, you try and do it... We mentioned Caroline and Suzanne, Peckham and Valenti about, they are fairly brutal with their cliff hangers and they do get a lot of heat from their readers. And they basically take the mickey out of their readers saying, "You're going to hate us. This is a massive cliffhanger." And provided you know you're going to get pushback from readers, at least on the surface, if you can get over that, they are incredibly effective to get people to buy the next book. And they're at number one with the eighth book in a series right now. So they haven't lost that many readers along the way by teasing them with cliffhangers. So they do work, but as long as you know you could be in info of a bumpy ride with Facebook comments and emails, that they're effective.
James Blatch: So the route I've gone down so far is to write these standalone stories with a bit of overlapping characters, but there's no sequence to them, really. Do you think it's better, more commercially sound to have a central character and a rolling series that really you do want to go from the next book to the next book?
Mark Dawson: Absolutely. Yeah. So you will get some read through quite a lot because provided your readers are enjoying your books, and there's no reason why we would think that they're not, they'll be interested in the next one because they like aviation, they like military history, they like the way you tell the story, they'll go from book to book. But if you had a character that they were invested in rather than the idea of a setting they might enjoy reading about, that would be much more effective. Because you get both that way. You could set a series in the '80s and really work on the atmosphere and the aircraft that were flying at the time, all the things that you get excited about. But then if you have a character with a backstory and personal relationships and development and threat and jeopardy and all of that kind of stuff, you're just really winding up the tension, and it's much more likely that someone will want to stay in that world if they're also invested in the character who's involved with the story.
James Blatch: Interesting.
Mark Dawson: There's a reason. You just need to look at the charts and which books are doing very well are usually series books with continuing characters. It's fairly easy to see that.
James Blatch: Well, I'm at that brilliant point. This is not about me, it's about you, but I'm going to talk about me. I love this bit where you're just got a blank page in front of you. It's where the magic comes. Right? You're thinking about story and these people, these characters, this situation will do anything you want because you're the author and you can make that happen, which is... It fills my God complex. But from book one, a common comment I got from a few people was that there was this MI5 agent in it called Suzy Attenborough, a very early female MI5 agent in the '60s. And most people said to me, they thought she would be the character I'd go on with, and it had never occurred to me. But now, I've got a blank page in front of me, my fourth book could be effectively book one in that series of her from 1970-onwards, keeping the military aviation theme. But that would be a really fun thing to do. And she'll get herself into some scrapes I expect.
Mark Dawson: What do her brothers think of her career choice?
James Blatch: Well, she had three brothers, so she was-
Mark Dawson: David, Richard and...
James Blatch: Yeah, it's not those ones. Yeah, she had three brothers. Interesting you asked that backstory because of course she was a bit of a, what you would've described as the tomboy in the '60s, which we now know is probably just a woman with a bit of ambition who had to be a tomboy because that's how it manifested itself. But without getting into all that, we're in the '70s, so I'd have to get into any of that.
Mark Dawson: Yes, exactly.
James Blatch: Anyway, looking forward to that. Okay. Right, back to you. So let's go back to the beginning. I knew you at the BBFC. I knew you had a couple of books published by Picador or someone, I don't know who it was, in the dim distant past. I read one of them, which I quite enjoyed. And the Art Falling Apart, I think was the one I read.
And not much had happened after that with your writing until a mutual colleague of ours who our name check, say Jim Cliff, said to you, "God, have you uploaded a book to Kindle? I'm actually selling it and making money." And your little thing went ding in your head at that point, and that was the beginning of this phase of your life, wasn't it?
Mark Dawson: "My little thing went ting," that's interesting.
James Blatch: Your ting-a-ling.
Mark Dawson: Was Jim. And also, actually weirdly at the same time, another friend of mine who you don't know had also said the same thing. And so I had the two of them saying that how easy it was and how they were selling some books, I don't think either of them sold many books, but they were selling enough to make me think this could be something that I might want to look into.
And chronologically, while I was doing this, I think I had a book that I'd been writing, The Black Mile, and was ready to start shipping that with my agent around London. We did that anyway and 'cause I still thought that was the best way to do it, stupidly. And luckily didn't get any... Had a few nibbles but nothing concrete. So I decided I might as well put it up there myself and see how things went. And yeah, this was 2013, I think, late 2012, 2013. And it was easy, started to get readers, not many, but enough for me to think that there was enough potential for me to spend the time and a bit of money working out how to get things going more effectively. And then I got started with the Milton books and that was, I think those were 2013, 2014, they were out and that was the starter, really. Never really looked back.
James Blatch: So John Milton, was that the first indie book you wrote and published after Black Mile?
Mark Dawson: No. Yes, after... Well, possibly, I think I wrote The Imposter after that. So The Black Mile and the Imposter are the two books in the Soho Noir Series, which they're not available now so I just took them down with a lot of that I had with them. And I don't really feel that I've got the time or that I could justify spending the time I'd need to do to link those into shape, so they're... I get emails quite a lot, they actually say, "Can I get them?" And I'm like, "No, you can't."
James Blatch: I'll tell you what you should do, you should do a Kickstarter with a bound edition of them for the hard core.
Mark Dawson: I know, but it's you could divide, but I don't think it's... What would I have most fun doing and what would make me the most money is definitely writing another Milton book. So they probably will never be re-released. But they were good experiences and good learning process for me to see what I needed to do, both in terms of formatting, getting covers, and learning and making mistakes on both of those fronts. Covers that I liked that were just not commercial. And formatting in those days, I used a third party in Australia to do my formatting and whilst it was effective, it wasn't efficient because if I had changes I had to basically negotiate with the formatter to make those changes, send the files back, re-upload the files. It just took ages. But then Vellum wasn't around then. There were other ways to do it, you use Collibra and things like that, but it wasn't as easy as it is today.
And the things that you needed to do in order to send readers to the book, so the advertising options were very different. The list services, big one in those days was Pixel Inc. And Kindle News and Tips, and there were Booksends, I think was around back in those days, BookBub but wouldn't have been, Free Books, it would've been just around about then. So they were options that were available that I tested some work, some didn't. And trying to work out what I needed to do to generate interest was the most important thing. And also, the thing that was hardest to figure out.
James Blatch: So what's interesting is, when you started Milton, was that after a period of research, market research?
Mark Dawson: No, not really. I wasn't writing to market. It was just, "What would I like writing and what would be commercial?" And I'd had an idea for a while. I think it's probably, I think when Casino Royal came out, the first Daniel Craig Bond film, which was a more grounded, less Bond saves the world type story. And unfortunately they went away from that and he's started saving the world again. But it was much more small scale and realistic, which I liked. And I've been thinking, I used to love The Equaliser from the '80s with Edward Woodward,
James Blatch: Ewa Woowa.
Mark Dawson: Ewa Woowa. Exactly. In the world with no consonants. And I wanted to mash those two up and give it a fresh contemporary take on that genre character. And the other thing that was in its favour was that I knew when I did The Black Mile, the research was loads of fun. I had loved doing the research, much like you did, going to the national archives and digging out real documents from the '40s and '50s is great fun, but it's really slow. And that's fine, if you know want to really dig into a book and take a year to write a book, knock yourself out. I'd highly recommend going down and doing that, but I wanted to write more quickly, get books out there that I could sell.
And it was a lot easier for me to do the research for something like Milton, because it is contemporary, it can all be done online. And also, it's not based on fact, is all things I'm making up. So although the world is very complicated now and I need a Bible to help me navigate it and make sure I don't get things wrong. In those early days, when I was just writing, I could just write and fill out details as I went along from Google, things like that, or from people that I know. And so I was able to write the first Milton book, probably three months, four months. And then in that year, 2014, I got faster. So I was think four or maybe five books published that year. And that was whilst working full-time at the BBFC and just writing on the train and when I got home, and maybe at work, don't tell the boss, but I made a little bit at work.
James Blatch: I wrote my first novel at the BBFC and on the train.
Mark Dawson: And of course, as I noticed, as I was publishing more frequently, I noticed that sales went up. And at the same time I was working out more effective ways to get people to read the first book and then if they liked that, then there was another two or three that they could enjoy. And so started to see the income matching what I was making in London and then accelerating past it. And then towards the end of that year, going past it by quite a lot. And that was November, 2014 was when I was able to go, "I don't need to do this anymore. I can write full time." So yeah, nearly what, eight years ago? Been a full-time writer for eight years, which is pretty cool.
James Blatch: Yeah. And when did you first start dabbling in paid ads, was part of the marketing?
Mark Dawson: Yeah, probably 2014 I think, would've been Facebook to start with. I messed around with Amazon a bit after that because Facebook came first, and I didn't have any success with either of them. So I think for Facebook, I was trying to drive traffic to the book and then make money through Kindle Limited and it just didn't work. I couldn't figure it out. So I then stepped back and looked at using Facebook Ads to build my list, so giving away a novella, which worked really well, still works today, I still do it today. It is really effective.
And then with a bit of experience, I went back and looked at, "Okay, how can I...?" I think the reason I couldn't get the KU stuff to work is because I didn't have any way to track the effectiveness of the ads. And had I the... I don't know, I may not have been the first person to figure this out, but it would've been very nearly the first to figure out using tracking data that Amazon supply to complete the equation so you can see both how much you spend and how much you make. And with that information, to complete the equation, you can work out whether you're making money or losing money. And when I saw I was making money, and in those days, four, 500% returns were not unusual. It was, okay, as much as I could afford, which wasn't that much then, buy ads, and build your readership, make money, build your readership. And that was the start of the, I'm not going to use the J word once on this podcast, but that was the start of-
James Blatch: The revolution.
Mark Dawson: Career, really. That was the start of the career. And building a list of readers who I can rely on to buy almost everything that I put out. I'm still doing it, that's still the foundation of everything that I do, and was able to really start pushing on. And I'm not entirely sure how many I've sold now, it's around about six million now, which is just ludicrous. But I can still remember back in the early days getting an email-
James Blatch: I'm sorry, I've sold 10,000, just so you know.
Mark Dawson: Well, your response there should have been, "Average, Mark." Well, that's that. You missed the trick there. But no, I still remember getting an email from the first reader who emailed me about my books, which was always one of the things I'd always wanted, never had as a traditionally published author. And I think it was a guy called Tam, he was in Wales and he's died now. So obviously I've enough, I've had enough readers now, some of whom will be towards the older end of the spectrum and who aren't with us anymore. And so I remember emailing Tam one time and his wife emailed back and said, "I'm sorry, Tam has died," which was really sad. But no, I remember I was at some BBFC event and it was just-
James Blatch: Did you reply with, "FFS. Where am I going to find another reader now? Do you know anyone?"
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Or were you more gentle?
Mark Dawson: I think I was very reasonably polite and kind, as I've tried to be. But no, I remember getting an email from him at BBFC event, a black tie event. And I remember having a glass of champagne and just checking my phone and I had an email from a reader and I was like, "Holy shit", that's a first." And that was a real important step along the way to have that contact with readers. And I still love getting new emails from readers and still and obviously do now and more than a few, but usually double figures a day usually, in terms of readers email. And I try to respond to it as many of them as I can.
James Blatch: And you have a bit of a team now, is it Mads, does she work for your book service as well?
Mark Dawson: Just looking for her, she's not here, though. She looks after my store. So if you can buy signed copies of my books on my website and Mads is in charge of that, so that works pretty well. But no, apart from that, there are no other full-time members of staff. It's not like SPF where there's lots of us, it's just me. I do the ads, I do everything. I don't do the cupboards 'cause I can't. And I'd much rather Stuart Bache, whose name will be familiar to those from this parish. And so Stu's been doing the covers for years now. I have a copywriter who does my blurbs for because, again, I can do it, but I'm not as good as she is, so I'm quite happy to give that to her. And formatting, I do that, I use vellum now. But yeah, it really is just me.
And yeah, there are days when I'd quite like to be able to hand off stuff to other people, but unfortunately, I've never found anyone who can do the ads better than me. And that's not because I'm a genius at it, it's just because they're my books and I know enough about the platforms to be able to make them work effectively. You give it to an agency, as I've tried a couple of times, and they're just lines on a spreadsheet and not that as effective. So I'd rather do that myself. So yeah, it is a one-man band, but it's fine, you can do it that way. I've built a pretty successful business just with me. And I'm not that unusual, there's nothing particularly spec special about me.
James Blatch: Well, that's the best way, I think if you can.
Mark Dawson: If you can. Yeah, I was going to say, it's easier to scale with more, but I don't know that it is. I've scaled it quite well myself and I don't really think having a full-time member of staff doing something, I don't know what they do, would scale it any faster than I could do it. So I'm not planning on adding anyone to the team. I don't really know what that would be, so I'm quite happy to continue as I am.
James Blatch: And do you do stuff for your ads campaigns? How often do you look at them?
Mark Dawson: Not as often as I did. So actually, I have a very big to-do list as you do, too. There's 25 things on it and I won't get through... Some of them, they just go from list to list, that I never ever get to. And one of them, which is really bad of me, is ads check. So my Amazon ads, I've been running and these are not cheaps, these are running quite a lot of money going on and I'm not checking them, which is stupid. So I think the UK one, I hadn't checked for six weeks. And so I did check that the other day and luckily it was fine. I've got to do Germany and the US at some point before Christmas, but then there's so much more to do. We'll see, we'll see.
But I mean certainly don't recommend that for most authors who are starting, but I don't recommend it for anybody. I suppose that's another thing I could hand off, is to get someone to just pull the data for me and then plug it into my spreadsheet, then I can check. But then, Amazon, if you're listening and I know you are, and we have a lot of Amazonians listen to this podcast, please, please allow access to accounts to named people who can pull the data for us and pop it into spreadsheets without giving them full login.
James Blatch: Oh, I see. You can do that, but they have to be users on your account. But yes, that is the thing. I have, for used books, Tina compiles the monthly figures for me, but I have what I call a scratch pad spreadsheet in there. And every seven to 10 days, I go in and I do the previous seven days. And I personally find the process of pulling the data and putting it in there is the process of analysing it. And this is going to sound stupid, it's the way I work, I think. But if someone presented me with that data-
Mark Dawson: No, I'm the same. I'm exactly the same. It's doing the work. You're more involved with it and it sinks in a bit deeper than if you just look at something. No, I'm definitely the same, which is unfortunate because that just means we can't effectively hand that off to anybody. C'est la vie. First world problem, but you know.
James Blatch: I'm the same with you with... I'm not going to turn this around because the telephone numbers was in there, but I'm at that point where you have your previous to-do list, you rip over and you start your new one and then you transfer over the stuff which you do. But this has now been, I think a week and I haven't transferred the old one, but the new one's full. There's stuff on there that I obviously need to look at. But yeah, it has been particularly... But it's always busy., I'm always busy. And I always find myself saying to friends, "I'm busy," and I'll stop saying that now because just how it is for us. And I quite enjoy it, I've been lost without it. Although if a Euro millions win came along, maybe I'd adjust to a life of gold from private jets. And my last area is about for the rest of us in terms of what's changed, what perhaps you would do differently today because of the way these ecosystems changed from how you would've done in 2014 when you got going.
Mark Dawson: Oh, it's just standard response on that, is when I started, advertising was not possible in the same way that it is today. There were ways you could leverage mailing lists to put the word out. The BookBub model was available, but different with different players involved. But Facebook Ads, Cost-per-click, ad models didn't really exist for us. Google was around but it's never worth a book, so that wasn't possible. But you didn't need to advertise and you could ride the organic momentum of an algorithm in a way that isn't really as easy these days.
But the counter to that is that there are advertising options that are very powerful, from Facebook to Amazon to BookBub, PPC ads, and other options that are available that weren't available then. So the difference is, advertising was unnecessary, a good thing, but not necessary when I started these days. It's a good thing and it is necessary. It's not a luxury, it is now a necessity. I don't really think realistically it's possible to break out as an author in a way that would make a notable difference to a life financially without advertising. I just don't think that's possible now. So that's the main thing.
So if I was starting out again, one of the first things, and obviously people need to bear in mind that SPF has courses in advertising, so you need to take that with a pinch of salt. But the main thing I would say, is you have to learn how to do it properly. There are other courses available, of course, but I think you can do it as I did by trial and error, which is fine, it could take a while and it might be expensive, or get someone to show you the shortcuts and the best strategies to learn. But I think it is actually, if you're approaching this as a business and potentially a replacement for your full-time job, that that's no longer a luxury, it is something that you have to do.
James Blatch: Which brings us neatly back to our Facebook Ads challenge. So we are ever the evangelists about mastering these subjects, are very important, as you say, for exactly those reasons. So we're setting up this challenge and the idea is it gets your foot in the door of Facebook Ads, that early competency, which is often the hurdle that people have to accessing it. And you can join the challenge that's going to take place in January, something like January the 10th I think, around middle of the month. And if you go to selfpublishingformula.com/facebookchallenge, that will send you to a Facebook group. Join that Facebook group, that's where we're going to be doing everything. Mark Dawson, my interviewee today.
Thank you very much and indeed for taking part. Where are you in the world? Are you in the East coast, West Coast?
Mark Dawson: I'm southwest coast.
James Blatch: Southwest coast. You're not on the coast.
Mark Dawson: Well, not too well. Half an hour, an hour away from the coast.
James Blatch: Global warming.
Mark Dawson: Well no, it's quite wet that direction, but I can see the kingfishers darting around this morning, so it's very pretty in this morning.
James Blatch: Lovely. Yeah. Well, hopefully you'll get some snow like we've had. No, it's been really great talking to you. Thank you very much. And this is weird saying that. And that's congratulations on 10 years of KDP Publishing.
Mark Dawson: And very nice of Amazon. They posted nice and nice graphic on their social media, which was lovely to see. So no, it's great. Yeah, Amazon, I'm obviously a big fan, they've changed my life for the better in lots of ways. So I'm unashamedly a fanboy for Amazon. And all the Amazonians that I've met, and I've met a few now over the years, they're all lovely people. And as I say, I know some of them, I think in fact, one of them who's very, very, very senior, not that senior, but not that far beneath being... I assume he's a listener in Seattle. So if he's listening, hello. But no, big fan, obviously.
James Blatch: No, they are a nice bunch. And actually, some thoughts with them because we do know that Amazon, which grew rapidly during the pandemic is now going to shrink a bit as the recession hits.
Mark Dawson: 10%. Yeah. 10% of their jobs have been culled. And as far as I know, none of the people I know in books have had, at least told me that they've had any issues with that, so I hope they haven't.
James Blatch: We know the people we met in Vegas weren't sure which way it was going to go for them on an individual basis, but yeah, good luck with that. And yes, they're nice folk. Okay, that's it. Thank you very much indeed to everyone behind the scenes, who's for 2022, helped this podcast get out on air. I want to say thank you to our Patreon listeners who are a special part of the show. We are looking at revamping the offering on Patreon for 2023, so stay tuned for that. Yeah, so that's John and Stuart and Catherine and other John who does the editing.
Mark Dawson: Tom.
James Blatch: And Tom. Have I forgotten? And Alexandra who's actually retired this year from, but she worked on the podcast every week, Alexandra Amor, wish her the best in her retirement from that type of work at least. And that's it, I think we'll see you one more podcast before the year rolls over, and we will see you next week. All that remains for me to say, is it's a goodbye from him
Mark Dawson: And a merry Christmas from me.
James Blatch: Merry Christmas.
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