Spotlight 007: Mark Dawson
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 process, their mistakes, and their successes. Five answers that will help you level-up your own author career. My name is 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, well, if you don’t recognize this week’s guest, I suggest you take a look at the branding because it’s none other than Mark Dawson. Hello, Mark.
MARK DAWSON: Hello, young Tom. How are you?
TOM ASHFORD: I’m very good. How are you?
MARK DAWSON: Yes, I’m fine. Just saying off record, I’m in childcare mode at the moment, so my daughter is in the other room, so there’s a fair chance we may have a seven-year-old coming through at some point. So we’ll bear that in mind.
TOM ASHFORD: Special guest.
MARK DAWSON: Special guest, exactly. Yes.
TOM ASHFORD: Now, normally I introduce an author by saying how many books they’ve written, but I’m not actually sure how many you have written.
MARK DAWSON: Well, that’s two of us. It’s somewhere, certainly more than 30. It’s probably about 35 now. There’s 14 books in the Milton Series, or the 15th, which will be out in a couple of months. Then, several spinoffs, a couple of standalones, some novellas, and the first ones I wrote were kind of new art detective stories. Soho Noir books, I called them. They were published seven years ago, something like that. So yeah, I’ve written a few.
TOM ASHFORD: Yeah. And the new Milton books called Bright Lights, isn’t it? I think it was announced yesterday or something.
MARK DAWSON: Yes. It is called Bright Lights, which is set in Vegas and wherever, Vegas, Sienna, El Salvador and San Francisco. So it’s a bit of a globe trotting. But yeah, it’s been fun to write.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool. Okay. Well let’s jump straight in with question one, the trickiest one, which is why do you write?
MARK DAWSON: Well, I should say, first of all, I help write these questions and I can’t remember any of them. So this is … and I’ve done their preparation, which is kind of sums me up at the moment, but why do I write? Well, I’ve always written really. I can remember going all the way back to when I was a teenager, in my early teens actually, staying behind in middle school and being allowed to sit in front of a BBC microcomputer in the Maths department, I think it was, with my math teacher who was called Mr Gutteridge and my English teacher who was Mrs or Miss Harrod-Eagles.
MARK DAWSON: She would be … They were both wonderful because they would sit down, they’d let me kind of tap away. She would be doing some marking I think, and would occasionally help me with what I was writing. I think it’s such a long time ago, I can’t remember exactly, but I think I finished a 20000 word novella, which to me and those, it sounded like it was kind of like war and peace. It was called Planet Pirates, and it was science fiction and it was absolutely terrible. I did try and find it the other day, see if I still had a copy, and thankfully for everyone I didn’t, I couldn’t find it. So that was where I started. I suppose I’ve always kind of doodled around with writing, with a few breaks. Quite a long break actually between going into university and then starting work in London as a lawyer.
MARK DAWSON: A friend of mine came into the office one day and said that he’d just, he’d written a novel, and he asked me to read it and I did. It wasn’t very good, but the impressive thing was he’d actually finished a novel, which was something I had tried and failed to do on numerous occasions. It was the impetus I needed to get back down to it again. In a kind of a blaze of creativity, I’m not quite sure why I was so driven in those days but I finished my first novel in about three months and got an agent very easily, got a publisher very easily. Not that those are things I expected to happen but the stars seemed to align for me. The book was published and that was what I hoped would be the start of my illustrious new career as an author.
MARK DAWSON: Didn’t quite turn out that way. The first book and the second book didn’t sell very well and I actually stopped writing again for about seven years until the Kindle came along, and that was when things really started to pick up.
TOM ASHFORD: Cool. So would you ever go back to traditional publishing, do you think? Or would you rather stick with the sort of the indie hybrid?
MARK DAWSON: I’m agnostic about that really. My view is that it’s all about the story and I don’t really care how the story is delivered. It could be with dead trees or by way of files. I don’t really care. I just want to get my words into the hands of readers. Now saying that, obviously I’m also a business person and I’ve got mortgage to pay, two kids for two schools, so my decision is always going to be colored by the financial implications of the choice that I make. I know now after publishing 35 books myself that the grass is pretty green on the indie side of the fence.
MARK DAWSON: But saying that, I mean I’ve got a new book I’m going to finish off after this Milton book called the House In The Woods, which is the first book in the new series starring a new character. I probably will get my agent to pitch that around London just really for shits and giggles really, just to see what the response is. If someone comes to me and says, “We’ll give you £1 million for three books.” I would probably take that deal. I’m not saying I definitely would because, although that sounds like quite a lot, I know what’s possible with Indie, but I probably would take a deal of that magnitude.
MARK DAWSON: Now the on the other side of the coin, now that might not be, probably wouldn’t be a decision that I’d be put in a position to make because even though I’ve sold millions of books myself, most of London, most of the big publishers I don’t think would know who I was. Even if they loved the book, I don’t think they’ve got to get away a deal. They’ve got to get the sign off for a deal that would be big enough for me to not publish it myself. So, that’s a long way of saying, I’m open to anything, but I’m pretty comfortable doing this myself.
TOM ASHFORD: Okay. So question number two is, how do you write?
MARK DAWSON: Well, I tend to write in the mornings. I’m obviously pretty busy, so there’s two businesses really. There’s obviously there’s SPF on the one hand, which is the nonfiction business, and then there’s the books. Whereas SPF is probably about eight or nine of us now spread around the world working on that, for my books, that really is only me. So there was a lot to do, but the most important thing as a writer is obviously to write, to produce new content. So I tend to get to my desk, right about 8:30 AM in the mornings, after dropping the kids to school and then I’ll write. I try to get into the habit at the moment of just writing in the mornings.
MARK DAWSON: If I’m doing fresh words, I’ll try and do between 2000 and 3000 words a day. That’s a fairly comfortable number for me. Once I’ve done that, I’ll take a walk to recharge the batteries and then I’ll do whatever else needs to be done, answering with email marketing, advertising, SPF stuff, contracts, speaking to my agent. There’s a never ending list of things that need to be done. Translations now, that’s another big area for me. So that’s how my day tends to look. And then the actual physical act of writing. I type for most of it, so I have a very nice mechanical Bluetooth keyboard. I’m a quirky writer, which I’ve posted pictures of before, really nice.
MARK DAWSON: I use Scrivener. So I’m writing into Scrivener with that most of the time. Fairly recently, I have started to quite enjoy dictation. So I’ve also got Dragon, and if I’m in the kind of discovery writing phase, I’ll often just switch the microphone on, usually turn away from the screen and sometimes close my eyes and just just tell the story. To my great surprise, I didn’t expect this to work for me. To my surprise, it has worked. The word count is prodigious compared to what I can manage when I’m typing, maybe 5000 words an hour. So it’s, if I can do a couple of hours of that, that’s really 10000 words a day. For me that’s ludicrous. Obviously that needs a bit more editing to get into a shipshape fashion, but it’s still a pretty crazy level of production which I was still looking at.
TOM ASHFORD: That can be like a book a week.
MARK DAWSON: Yeah, it could. Well, there are writers, we’ve had a couple on the podcast recently who I don’t think they dictate. I’m thinking of Amanda Lee, may not have been on the podcast by the time this goes out, but I think she publishes one every three weeks, certainly one a month. I’m nowhere near that kind of level of productivity. So I have to take my hats off to writers who can write that quickly and as well as she does. But for me, if I can do full books a year, I’d accept that as a pretty decent year.
TOM ASHFORD: Okay. Are you more of a plotter or do you wing it?
MARK DAWSON: I am somewhere in the middle. So when I started writing, the Soho Noir books, I plotted them very, very religiously. They’re the romantic notion of … I’ve got these chalk, these big felt boards put up in my old study and I had all these index cards that I would use, drawing pens and put them on onto the board. And then I’d moved them around as I thought of plots, ideas, and it was a fairly physical, fun way of imagining what the story would look like. Since then, I guess probably because I’m slightly more confident in myself as a storyteller, I tend to start with an idea or even a place sometimes or something I’ve read in the newspapers. So for example, I watched Chernobyl recently, the HBO Sky Production. Complete loved it, blew me away. Now I’m thinking about writing something about Chernobyl.
MARK DAWSON: The way I would do that would be, I’d probably start with, I’d be thinking about, what if it wasn’t what we were told? What if it was something else? And there’s loads of conspiracy theories, all of which are almost certainly nonsense about the Chernobyl disaster. But I think about that and I’ll start to … That would be kind of percolating in my head. I probably wouldn’t get to write this until next year, but I’ll be thinking about it every now and again. Just thinking about what might have happened and if that happened then what would happen? What would happen to those characters? So I’m always thinking about that.
MARK DAWSON: Then when it comes down to actually writing it, what I would tend to do is to open a Scrivener file, and in the binder I would maybe put down 20 or 30 chapters and then maybe a couple of scenes in these each chapter. On the chapter level, I would put down a rough idea of what might happen in that chapter. I also just, my brain tends to work this … My stories tend to be contained within a five or six day period. So I don’t usually do sprawling books that take place over the course of years. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. They always tend to be fairly chronologically compressed. What I would do would be, I’d have chapter, it would be like day one and then I put a rough time, let’s say 9:00 AM.
MARK DAWSON: Then I think, “Hey, what would happen next? What are the steps I need to get to the next big point that I want to cover?” By doing that, by shuffling them around and by continuing to tweak them without doing any actual writing, by the time I get down to writing, I’ll have a rough idea of where I am. The best analogy I’ve ever heard that describes how I do that and how other writers who use that kind of method perform that task is, I think it was Raymond Cheever … John Cheever, I think it was. He said, and this is a bit pretentious, so apologies for that. But some writers who write that way, no where there … it is like driving at night in the countryside. You know where you starting, you might know where you’re going to stop midway and you know where you’re ending, but the rest of the journey is picked up by as far as you can see in the headlights. That’s kind of the way that I write. It’s a mixture of discovery writing and fairly loose plotting. That tends to work quite well for me.
TOM ASHFORD: Okay. Now question number three is not really designed for you, I’m going to be honest. Because it’s, are you a full-time author? If you are, how did you get there and if you aren’t, what steps have you been taking to make it happen?
MARK DAWSON: I am a full-time author and I have been since the 20th of November, 2014. So four and a half years now, which has gone by in an absolute flash, to be completely honest. The steps I took. It has always been to be as professional as possible, to treat it as a business. Before all of that, it is to write books that my readers enjoy, and to continue improving and to continue writing the next book. So the year I left, 2013, 2014, I must’ve written about six or seven novels in that time. That was whilst commuting back and forth in London. So writing on the three hours a day I had on the train. It was a super productive time. Very, very … really productive time and very prolific time for me.
MARK DAWSON: It was learning by advertising. That was a key moment for me. That was kind of the accelerant moment. I started to use Facebook ads and around about end of 2013, beginning of 2014. It was really those that took me from selling pretty well. In January, 2014 I think I was earning what I was earning at the day job. And when I left in November I was probably earning about six times what I was earning at the day job. Apart from writing more books, the only other thing that changed was that I was teaching myself how to effectively advertise, and in those days it was really only Facebook.
MARK DAWSON: That was the moment that I was able to kind of … I couldn’t … I remember my wife saying to me, “You’ve got to think about what your time is worth. Do you want to spend eight hours a day watching TV?” Which is what I did for a living with James and John, weird enough. “Or is your time more productively spent both emotionally, professionally, financially? Is it better spent writing new books?” And by that stage there was no question, it would have been self-sabotage to continue with the day job. So I gleefully handed in my notice and sailed off into the sunset.
MARK DAWSON: But weirdly enough, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before. The day I left, the day I handed my notice in, I got an email from the Head of KDP in London saying, there was a problem with my account, which was quite worrying. Fortunately, they’d overpaid me by a hell of a lot. It wasn’t anything more serious than that, but it was interesting timing.
TOM ASHFORD: Oh, so you’re not saying that you left full-time employment in order to get away from James and John?
MARK DAWSON: Well, they had actually gone. They had left by then. The BBFC was downsizing, had been downsizing for the last 12 months. I think John went first and then James went. They pocketed nice redundancy checks and then invested in their first business together. It was only, I think I must’ve left about a year after they did, and maybe six months after that we got in touch again, and started talking about SPF. The rest is history.
TOM ASHFORD: Yeah. Okay. So question four is, what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
MARK DAWSON: I’ve made tons of mistakes. I have regionally … The obvious one that I’ve told a few times is, way back at the start when the Black Mile was published, it was the first book, 2012, 2013. I did a Freebie giveaway, as in select. I did one of those free giveaways where you get three days every … five days, every three months with Amazon. I set it free, forgot about it, didn’t … I think I might have done a freebooksy in there as well. Went for a bike ride in the summertime. It was August I think. I just checked my phone and expecting to see maybe I had 50 or 100 downloads, and it was something like 50000 downloads, which was ridiculous.
MARK DAWSON: Once I’d gotten over the shock of that, my next thought was, “I don’t have … How do I contact them afterwards and they’ve got nothing else to read? It was the only book I had out. There was no Reader Magnet. I don’t think any one was even thinking about Reader Magnets in those days. There was no mailing list sign up. There was nothing. So I probably cost myself a little bit of time getting going. It was an opportunity that I missed and obviously I don’t do that now. I religiously and diligently harvest emails and get reads on to the main list every opportunity that I get. So that was a pretty big mistake. I made tons of mistakes with Facebook ads in the early days by, I think my first attempt was to try and get people in Kindle Unlimited to download my books, and I just could not get those to work.
MARK DAWSON: It was only when I switched to trying to build the mailing list with Facebook ads that I saw it was possible. And then when I started advertising a book set, I remember in those days seeing huge numbers 400% to 500% return. So spending 10 making 50, spending 1000 making 5000. I remember speaking to my accountant and saying, “Well, I am not good at maths, it’s not one of my strengths.” And I said to him that, “I think I’m making like five times what I’m investing. Can you check to make sure that it’s right?” I remember him calling back and saying, “Effectively you’ve discovered a great big ATM and can I invest the money in it?” So that was a mistake, and then a way to correct it and push on. I’d made lots of mistakes, but my mantra is it’s okay to make mistakes once provided that you learn from it and you don’t make it twice. So I always try to learn from areas and move on and improve.
TOM ASHFORD: Okay. Last but not least, question number five, what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
MARK DAWSON: It’s obviously, write. So if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to have something to sell. So we’ve put crafts aside for the moment. My best piece of advice is just treat it like a business and be professional. Because you’re going to be judged, you’re going to be competing with authors like me, if you’re writing thrillers, and traditionally published authors. Loads of very professional indies now. Traditionally published books still have great covers, they’re well edited most of the time. And that’s what you’re going to be competing with.
MARK DAWSON: You’re going to be on those Amazon shelves fighting for reader attention and reader dollars or pounds or whatever, or euros, wherever you are. You’re competing with those rivals for readers. So you need to make sure that your book is indistinguishable from all of those. So that means you can’t get away with a cover that you’ve made yourself in … unless you are a cover designer, I think, or you’ve taken a course so you understand the tenants of cover design. I don’t think you can get away with that these days. I personally don’t think you can get away without a thorough edit. Others will just disagree with me on that. But for my own philosophy is that, I hate … A single typo is one typo too many for me.
MARK DAWSON: So that’s not to say that there aren’t any in my books, but I will do everything I can to make sure that they are tracked down and annihilated. So there’s that. Make sure that your product page looks amazing. There are no mistakes on it. That you price competitively, but you also value your work. Treat it like a business. Think about what successful indies are doing. Find ones that are like you, and then model them. So when I started out, people like Hugh Howey and Russell Blake were doing very well, and obviously we’ve had both of those on the podcast. Over the years we’ve been doing it, but I remember looking at their posts on keyboards and thinking, “Oh, God. They’re so far ahead of me, I’ll never ever get there.”
MARK DAWSON: But I would look at what they were doing. I would try to distill their best practice and put that into my own business and then work to improve that as well. Maybe take it in my own direction, maybe improve it a little. So that’s what I’d recommend, is be professional, going with your eyes open. It’s not easy, but as we say on the other podcasts that there’s never been a better time to be a writer. So it’s an amazing time to be writing right now.
TOM ASHFORD: Okay, well that’s it. You answered five questions. That was brilliant. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for making time.
MARK DAWSON: You’re very welcome Tom. And do you know you didn’t say cool? I think you said cool once. I should say for listeners, my wife, we were in a holiday last week and my wife listened to the first five Spotlight Podcasts and she loved them. So young Tom, you’re doing a fantastic job. But she did say, and we will do this. I do it too, so does James. We all have our little verbal tics. Lucy said, “You’ve got to tell Tom to stop saying cool.” And now of course, now that I’ve said that, it is going to be in your head, isn’t it? Every time, and so I have to apologize for that.
TOM ASHFORD: I was thinking of replacing it with words like radical and sick over and over again.
MARK DAWSON: I love that.
TOM ASHFORD: Just getting steadily worse.
MARK DAWSON: Spacious would be a good one.
TOM ASHFORD: Oh, spacious. Yeah.
MARK DAWSON: How are the eighties? Yes. Thank you very much, young Tom. It’s been a pleasure.
TOM ASHFORD: 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. If you want to appear as a guest on this show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing to selfpublishingformula.com/spotlight-guest. I’m Tom Ashford and I’ll see you again next week.
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