Spotlight 005: Daniel Parsons
Mark Dawson: I’m Mark Dawson from the Self Publishing Show, and this is Self Publishing Spotlight, where we shine a light on the indie authors who are changing the world of publishing one book at a time.
TOM ASHFORD: Hello, and welcome to the Self Publishing Spotlight. We meet indie authors at all stages of their careers and ask them a series of five questions, five questions about their progress, their mistakes, and their successes, five answers that will help you level up your own author career.
My name’s Tom Ashford, and I’m part of the Self Publishing Formula. Don’t forget that you can get your Self Publishing Resource Kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
This week’s guest is Daniel Parsons. He’s written seven books in the comedy zombie, fantasy, and nonfiction genres, and he lives somewhere in Wales. Hello.
DANIEL PARSONS: Hello, Tom. Thanks for having me. This is my first-ever podcast appearance, or something like it.
TOM ASHFORD: It’s great to have you on. Start a little bit over that comedy zombie. It’s an unusual genre, I guess, apart from Shaun of the Dead. That’s what I think of.
DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah. Well, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. They tend to be the only ones that people remember. To be honest, I don’t know a lot more. It spawned out of an idea that I had in university. I was writing a script for one of my modules, and then it sort of developed into a story. Yeah, the premise for it is a little bit more original, I think, than most. Basically, there’s a student freshers bar crawl, which is a week at the start of the university year in Britain where all of the students get drunk. Basically, there’s a zombie outbreak right at the beginning of freshers and the students who have just been thrown together in their new accommodation find out that if they get really, really drunk where they’re almost blackout, the zombies don’t attack them. So they’ve got to have this massive bar crawl-
TOM ASHFORD: Nice.
DANIEL PARSONS: … where they’ve got to get to the end of the city to escape and try not to lose each other and fall asleep and things- TOM ASHFORD: That sounds great.
DANIEL PARSONS: … before the zombies get them. Yes. It was fun to write.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool, and you also write in non-fiction and fantasy. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah. My fantasy was … I’ve always planned to write fantasy. That was my main genre. It started … I wrote one fantasy novel a long time ago now, and while I was shopping it around traditional publishing agents I thought I’d do a small novella on the side just for Christmas as a little giveaway, and I found that I really enjoyed the self publishing process. So that was my first-ever foray into self publishing fantasy. It’s a classic sort of Oliver Twist, but with magic and elves and things like that.
TOM ASHFORD: Great. In terms of nonfiction, what sort of thing do you write about?
DANIEL PARSONS: Well, my first nonfiction book, I’ve got one out at the moment, it was on how to grow an organic large Twitter presence. So that turned out really well. I actually enjoyed writing it a lot better than I expected to. I only wrote it, if I’m completely honest, because I’d grown a massive Twitter following at one point and it doesn’t really pay off as an author sales funnel. So I thought, “I may as well just put down this information for people that want to learn it anyway,” and it turned out really well. That was actually my first Amazon Best Seller Badge, was on something that I didn’t actually know I was going to publish and because I enjoyed it, I’ve decided to publish more nonfiction since.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool. Well, great. Okay, let’s jump into the five questions. First one you’ve covered a little bit already, but it’s, Why do you write?
DANIEL PARSONS: Well, I always wrote for passion, essentially. Started as a child, like a lot of people do. Wrote in university, did an English degree. I had very encouraging teachers, and I got to adulthood and just kept pushing down the traditional route until I found that I quite liked self publishing. Now, well, I work in traditional publishing anyway. I’m a copywriter for a traditional publisher, and I’m really attracted to the flexibility of publishing and the lifestyle. Obviously, if I could go on to be a massive bestseller like many of the people we know are, then you get to do lots of glamorous things, traveling all over the world, writing when you want. I’m not saying that you don’t want to work hard, but you just like to work hard on your terms.
TOM ASHFORD: Exactly. You want to reap the reward for your hard work, rather than somebody else.
DANIEL PARSONS: Absolutely.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool. So you’re an indie author. Would you switch to being traditionally published if you were given the offer?
DANIEL PARSONS: It depends on the deal. I’ve had two small traditional publishing offers in the past where I took them. They were a good learning experience because I got to work with publishers, but ultimately I asked for my rights back and self published those books after they’d been traditionally published, just because I had very little control on book covers and marketing. Traditional publishers are very reluctant to give away books for free, and as we know, that can work very well as a marketing tool. So I’d rather have those in my back list that I can use in a way that is going to benefit me as opposed to they’re going to disappear with a traditional publisher. If I got the right deal with the right publisher and I knew that they could offer something that I couldn’t do myself, then yeah, obviously I’d jump at the chance. But it would have to be the right deal.
TOM ASHFORD: Yeah, fair enough. Question number two is, How do you write? Which is a pretty open question, but part one of that would be … Yeah. “With words.” Part one would be, plotter or pantser?
DANIEL PARSONS: I actually used to be a pantser, but I found that … I’ve done a few National Novel Writing Months when I started out pantsing, and then I realized that I’d write myself into a corner because I write a lot of fantasy. What I tend to find is that my characters become very, very powerful very quickly and they start having this god complex, and then trying to work out the meaning of life and you’ve backed yourself into a corner where you need to explain the meaning of life to finish the book. That’s not a great way to go. So now, I tend to plot. I typically do a 3,000-word outline for a full novel, and then that will grow to about 75,000 75,000 words by the time I’ve written the first draft.
TOM ASHFORD: Nice. Do you use Scrivener or Word or any other sort of writing tool?
DANIEL PARSONS: Oh, it’s just Word. I’ve considered Scrivener, but I’ve got so many learning curves I already need to get over. I don’t want to add another one.
TOM ASHFORD: Fair enough. Do you use any sort of formatting software or anything like that?
DANIEL PARSONS: Not really. As one of my previous traditional publishing roles, I did formatting exclusively. That was my job for about three months at one point, where I just formatted novels all day. So I’m pretty comfortable with doing that in an advanced way through Word, and then I just feed it into … What’s the name of the equipment that I use? It’s a French word. Begins with-
TOM ASHFORD: Sorry?
DANIEL PARSONS: Begins with a C. I can’t remember what it’s called.
TOM ASHFORD: Is it Calibre or something?
DANIEL PARSONS: Calibre. That’s the one. Yeah. I tend to create my files on Word and then feed them straight into Calibre, and 90% of the time they’re almost readable [inaudible 00:08:03].
TOM ASHFORD: Fair enough. Is there a particular time and place that you like to write, anywhere like a special writing hole or something?
DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah. I like writing first thing in the morning. I find if I leave it last thing at night, then I’ve got no willpower whatsoever and I’m not able to be dedicated. So I typically get up anywhere between half 4:00 and 5:00 at the moment, just because I need to go off for work at 6:00. So I’ve got to get that hour and a half in the day. One of the unusual places that I write, and I get most of my writing done this way, actually, is on a bus or a train. It’s a little bit like a coffee shop because there’s a hum of background noise, and you sort of just blur everybody else out and you get loads of writing done. And there’s no wifi on any of the public transport so you can’t get distracted with the internet.
TOM ASHFORD: I used to find that going on a train back home or something, it’d be like an hour and 20 minutes, and it would just be an hour and 20 minutes of complete … There’s nothing else to do and no one to talk to, so you’re just like, “All I can do is write,” and somehow you then become three times more productive than you might otherwise be.
DANIEL PARSONS: I mean, there’s no wonder why Mark Dawson wrote 3,000 words a day running a massive train commute in and out of London every day.
TOM ASHFORD: Yeah. Cool. Well, question three is, Are you a full-time author? If you are, how did you get there? And if you aren’t, what steps are you taking to make it happen?
DANIEL PARSONS: I’m not a full-time author at the moment. My income goes up slightly every year. I’m still waiting for the exponential curve where I’m suddenly having five-figure months. But yeah, I’m definitely putting in processes to get there. I’ve got a team now, which I didn’t have at the beginning when I first started publishing. Like I said, I’ve worked with traditional publishers as an employee and as an author. So I regularly speak to my cover designer. My editor is actually my previous boss in my office. Again, my proofreader was a proofreader that sat next to me in the office, so I essentially just stole a traditional publishing team and use them for my own as freelance. So yeah, there’s that.
There’s also the fact that I tend to balance marketing and writing a lot more now. In the past, it’s always been … When you’re first learning marketing, you tend to throw yourself into marketing because you get excited and forget about the writing. Before that, when you’re writing you’re just writing. But the balance of doing the two is quite difficult, especially around a full-time job. So what I tend to do now is I write heavily in the morning and then market at night. That seems to be shifting a few more copies. Things like cost per click things, more general marketing that goes on constantly as opposed to just short bursts every now and again, a newsletter blast or something. I find if you keep them sort of plugging away continuously, then you get better results.
One thing that I’m quite excited about is at the moment I’ve got five, possibly six books that are almost finished. There’s been a bit of a backlog. There’s a bottleneck where I had a few different issues with … My editor had a long back list of clients he needed to work with and people like that. So eventually, when they all come out, they’re going to come out quite close together. I’ve never had rapid release before, so I’m quite looking forward to seeing how that goes.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool. Question number four is, What mistakes do you think you’ve made, and what have you got right?
DANIEL PARSONS: Well, originally I made lots of mistakes. One of the big mistakes that I made was that I hired a friend who was doing an English degree to do my editing rather than hiring a professional editor that’s relevant to my genre. That was a big mistake. It was well intentioned and it seemed like a really good idea at the time, but long term you realize there are a lot of mistakes that even someone who is doing an English degree have missed because they’re not an experienced editor.
The other one is my covers. I had a little bit of experience using Photoshop and my own design software background sort of stuff. Turns out, I’m not a cover designer. I can design posters, I can design quite basic things if I need to, but I’m not a natural artist. Now, however, I’ve got a very competent cover designer who is a traditional artist, which is much better for children’s books rather than using stock photos and things like that, which really doesn’t go with the genre.
There was also, and this is one mistake that I made that I think possibly a lot of people make. I started writing when I first left university commercially. I assumed that I’d be able to bootstrap my way straight into the industry and it’d all go very easily because you read blogs, you see these huge success stories, and you think, “Oh, it can’t be that hard.” Then, when you try it yourself, you find out that it is essentially, unless you hit the right market or you luck out in some way and you’ve got this … I think people [inaudible 00:13:13] in a bottle where you instantly take off. That doesn’t tend to happen for lots of people unless they’ve got a marketing strategy and a marketing budget.
So if you leave university, try not to go into the world of work and instead start writings straightaway, that doesn’t necessarily work because you need to have some sort of ongoing budget to give yourself some momentum particularly at the beginning. So I think a lot of people possibly drop out of work too early, and that’s what I tried to do, but obviously you go back to it and you find out there are so many more opportunities when you’ve got money. And yeah, I tend to be one of these people who genre hops. I haven’t completely got this out of my system yet because I still work in three different genres and I’m considering more. I might have to get a pen name.
TOM ASHFORD: Probably a good idea, yeah.
DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah. They’re all very, very different genres as well, as you know, so it’s not the biggest mix. So that stunts momentum quite a lot, which I’ve learnt over the time. So yeah. Obviously, it slows down your release rate to audience, so if you’re bringing out a book every three months, that’s not too bad if it’s for one audience, especially bringing out a book for one audience in three months and then it doesn’t come around for another nine months when you release a new fantasy or horror book. Then that’s the same as releasing slow. So lots and lots of mistakes. But they’re all learning experiences.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool. Well, that leads straight into question five, which is, What’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing? Other than not releasing in five different genres, one book a year.
DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah. Well, lots of advice. I spent four and a half years trying to write my first novel. I wrote it, I really enjoyed the process, and I learnt a lot, but I really could’ve done it much, much more quickly. I think some of the big, very prolific authors talk about this quite a lot. It’s a Silicon Valley term. It’s the fail fast idea. If you know you’ve got to get books out, then get them out as quickly as possible because you think that you might write at a high quality if you write slowly, and the reality is if you just concentrate those hours, you can actually get a lot more done and learn a lot more, a lot faster, in that process. Anything that doesn’t work, you can get over that hurdle very quickly and move on to something more productive and something that’s a bit more marketable. Obviously, to stay in one genre, that helps a lot as well.
One thing that I didn’t start out with at all was any sort of sales funnel. If you’ve got all your ducks in row, you’ve got the calls to action in the back of your ebooks, you’ve got a mailing list set up and people can sign up pretty easily, you’ve got the onboarding sequence, all of these things combined create this momentum for you that will slowly build your career, or in some cases, very quickly build your career. But if it’s all automated, then you don’t have to think about it too much. It takes a lot of the work out of it, whereas what I did when I first started was you end up trying to claw contacts and information and things together manually, and automation really helps fast-track that without too much extra effort. You’ve just got to front load some of the work.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool. Great. Well, that’s five questions so you’re off the hook. Thank you very much for coming on.
DANIEL PARSONS: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it, and I’ll probably be in a lot more podcasts now because of this.
TOM ASHFORD: Good. That’s it for this week’s Self Publishing Spotlight. Don’t forget that you can get your free Self Publishing Resource Kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit. And if you want to appear as a guest on the show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing to [email protected] using the subject line Self Publishing Spotlight. I’m Tom Ashford, and I’ll see you again next week.
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