Spotlight 009: David Penny
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’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 David Penny. He’s written 11 books in the historical mystery genre. He lives in North Gloucestershire but sometimes Spain. Welcome, David.
David Penny: Welcome. Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here, Tom.
Tom Ashford: It’s great to have you. Do you want to talk a little bit about your books and sort of about the historical mystery genre and stuff like that first?
David Penny: Yeah, sure. I used to write science-fiction when I was very young and I had a trad deal. These days I write historical mysteries. They’re set in a very popular period, which is Tudor. Unfortunately I decided to set them in Spain instead of England. So my books are about an English émigré who trains to become a surgeon, works for a sultan in Granada, and solves crimes, and has a buddy who is a six foot eunuch. Between the two of them they try to cure the world, which is very difficult at the time period.
Tom Ashford: Well, yeah, that sounds absolutely great. Okay, well question number one is, why do you write?
David Penny: I don’t have any option but to write. It’s like, it’s something I have to do. I’ve always done it. I’ve always read extensively. I think I can remember when I was 11 years old, sitting in our garden with my grandfather’s portable typewriter writing a story about alien invasion. It’s a shame I lost it because it would make me laugh at least if nothing else now. It’s, I’ve always done it. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote and got rejected and rejected. Then at the age of 24 I had a book deal with Robert Hale and then I had four books out. Then I stopped writing, but I never forgot that it was what defined me, if you like. So probably 10 years ago, eight years ago, I came back to it, decided I’d worked, and I’d run a business, and created a business, but I defined myself as being a writer. So I thought, “Let’s do it while I still have time to.”
Tom Ashford: Nice. So what was the reason for stopping in the first place? Was it just sort of life?
David Penny: Yeah, it was really life. Everybody asks that. Lack of money. I got paid for all my books, but it was £200 advance and negligible royalties. I was looking through old papers and I did get some royalties, but not much.
Tom Ashford: Fair enough.
David Penny: And then the fourth book, I had a German translation, which paid enough money to buy my now current wife an engagement ring. So I got married, we had kids. I had to put food on the table. So writing then, as now I suppose, was not very lucrative, although I’ve learned how to do it better now.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. So when you moved into the … Well, yeah. Why the change to historical mystery rather than carrying on with sci-fi?
David Penny: Yeah. Yeah. When I was younger, I read almost exclusively science-fiction. I devoured it. It was quite a good time. So this was … Well, I grew up through the ’60s and ’70s, my teenage years and above, and science-fiction was just sort of peaking then. You know, you had all the big names of it. So I read that and read that. You tend to write what you read. Then as I grew older and read just for pleasure rather than how to write, I discovered I started reading mysteries more and science-fiction less. I like to pretend that science-fiction, once I’d stopped writing it got much worse. But I think that’s probably not right.
Tom Ashford: No, maybe not.
David Penny: Yeah. So I was reading a lot of mystery books. Probably contemporary mysteries rather than historical. But I read … I don’t know if you know C. J. Sansom, he writes the Shardlake books.
Tom Ashford: Not personally.
David Penny: No. No. Neither do I. And people like Conn Iggulden and so on. I read those and I had written a contemporary police procedural in a sort of hybrid science-fiction police thriller. Then we were just sitting at home one day in the evening and the kids were here then, and I said, “Do you think anybody’s ever written an historical mystery set in Moorish, Spain, in 1480 to 1492?” They looked at me and said, “Hey? What?”
Tom Ashford: Probably not.
David Penny: No. It was one of those lightning bolt inspirations that comes. It wasn’t there and then all of a sudden it was there, and it was there as a 10 book series. So that was the start of it. I simply sat down … Well, I spent 18 months researching the period and discovering that it wasn’t a mistake to write something set there. Really I’ve carved a niche of my own. I’m the only person, as far as I know, that writes in that period, in that time, in that location, and from that point of view. So it’s set in Islamic Spain, the last remnant of Islamic Spain.
Tom Ashford: Okay. I mean obviously it’s been fairly lucrative. It’s obviously worked out all right. So you used to be traditionally published and now you’re indie published.
David Penny: Yeah.
Tom Ashford: Would you ever switch back?
David Penny: Yes and no. If I switched back, it would be for a particular purpose. So you said, you know, “When can we do this interview?” And I said, “Not over the weekend. I’m going to the Harrogate Crime Festival.” I do two or three of those every year in different places. One in Bristol, one in Harrogate, and then whatever. I have a [inaudible 00:06:30] to sit on a panel there and just talk rubbish for 20 minutes or half an hour. In Harrogate you can’t do that unless you have a traditional publishing deal because it’s the publishers that put your name forward. So I have an idea for a modern police procedural book trilogy that is completely plotted from start to end and which I’ve written snippets of over several years and I thought … I’m very arrogant in that I think I would get a book deal, but I may be totally disabused. I thought I might try submitting that. Then I will have the best of both worlds.
David Penny: The trouble is I’ve been talking over the weekend to lots of trad authors and they’re all going around saying, “How much do you get as an indie?” I say, “It’s 70% of the sale price.” And they say, “Ooh. Ooh. My publisher says Amazon don’t pay that much.” And I said, “They don’t if you’re a publisher.” So these people are getting between five and 12% maximum. They’re just saying, you know, “I can’t afford to give up my day job yet because I’m not earning enough money.” I think you’d have to give that up to go with a trad deal, and I’m not sure I’m willing to do that yet.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, okay. Well question number two is how do you write? So do you sit down and plot out your books or do you just have an idea and then see where the story takes you?
David Penny: I am a plotter plus. I never used to be. When I wrote in my 20s as the science-fiction, I used to sit down and see what came to me, and write until I got enough words basically. Then when I started writing again I thought, “Oh, I’ll get my old books back.” So I wrote to Hale and said, “Could I have the rights reverted?” And they said, “Yeah, sure. They’re not doing us any good.” And so I got hold of them and read the books and I thought, “Oh my God, now I can see why they didn’t sell.” Because they are awful. Basically they don’t … It’s interesting, I went through it and I thought, “The writing is actually pretty good. I could write.” But I couldn’t tell a story.
David Penny: So I spent a long time looking at craft books. I never did it when I was younger. I’m not sure if they weren’t there or if I just wasn’t aware of them. So I got a lot of craft books. The one that opened my eyes really was one called, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, which is actually a screenwriting manual, but the theory is identical. Basically it says humans are hardwired for story, and if you don’t tell them a story, then they will lose their interest. He gives lots of examples of things that work and things that don’t work. I thought, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” So I started to use his beat sheets and plot extensively. So that’s what I do now. I started doing it really carefully, and then now I’ve discovered that I spend a month plotting before I put a word on page.
Tom Ashford: Nice.
David Penny: What I’ve discovered is that if I … I never stick to the plot. So I’m currently halfway through book eight in the series and it’s gone off in all sorts of tangents. But unless I had my plot, I wouldn’t have been able to get that far. So I’ve kind of relaxed a little bit. I still plot every single scene from beginning to end. My books are about 100,000 words. So I will have 40 to 48 chapters, depending upon length. I simply start to write according to the plot and then when I get to about a third of the way through or halfway through, lots of things start to happen. As you refine your plot on the page, you discover things that come out of the woodwork and you have to accept them. So that’s what I’ve reached now. I’m halfway through and it’s easy from here on. It’s like rolling a boulder to the top of the hill, and once you get to the other side, it’s really simple to get to the bottom.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Cool.
David Penny: Yeah. But I also write very fast. So I said I’m a plotter, I’m also a planner. I have spreadsheets that tell me exactly … This book I’m writing now will be out on the 13th of February next year. I know that, and I’ve already booked my editor, and I’ve already booked my cover designer, and I’ve already booked my proofreader. So I know exactly when that’s going to come. My spreadsheet tells me, so 30 days to plot, 60 days for first draft, set it aside for a month, come back to it, refine it, send it off to the editor, et cetera. I make a drive people mad telling them what I do and they say, “Oh, I couldn’t do that.” And I say, “I couldn’t not do it.”
Tom Ashford: Yeah. I mean, you say you write fast. How many words do you try to get done a day?
David Penny: Generally I’m happy with 2000 plus, but on a good day, I will … So 2000 plus means that in 60 days I’ll have done 120 K. I have days off, and so I haven’t written a word since last Wednesday, so I’m catching up now. So 2000 plus words. On my best day, I think I’ve done 12,000. But I only write a couple of … I type very fast. So I write, I sit at the desk, and I put on headphones, and I play really loud rock music.
Tom Ashford: Nice.
David Penny: I have a playlist on Amazon Music and it consists of things like Neil Young’s electronic feedback music. I know the songs so well now that I don’t actually listen to them, but the music turns off something in my head that … and then the words just come. So I just sit down and write for two hours. That’s probably more or less it, and however many words I do in a couple of hours, that’s fine. I’ve discovered I’m better from two till four now. I didn’t realize that until recently.
Tom Ashford: Okay. So question number 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?
David Penny: Yeah, I am now. Well, I’m in a very fortunate position in that I’m now retired and I’m in receipt of my state pension and I’m in receipt of a very small work pension, neither of which would allow us to enjoy the life that we have currently. I currently earn from my writing as much as I earned when I owned and ran an IT company.
Tom Ashford: Nice.
David Penny: But that hasn’t always been the case. That’s been about the last four years, I would imagine. When I started, I earnt, as most other writers do, particularly indie writers, a pittance. On a good day I would sell a book. I was very pleased with that. If that happened now I’d be really upset that … I don’t know. Well, I can’t remember the last time I just sold one book in a day, but you know, I get upset if I sell less than three figures a day now. It is a process and it’s a learning curve.
David Penny: My revelation point came with realizing that you might have written the best book you possibly have, and it might be the best book in the world, but unless nobody knows about it, nobody is going to buy it. So I went and did a course on Facebook advertising, and marketing, and all sorts of other things around it. But the main thing was the Facebook advertising. I threw a bit of money at it for three months and lost money, but not as much as I could have done. Then I took three months off and tried to refine what was wrong and then came back to it. For some reason I struck lucky, and I tell everybody I struck lucky by having an orange advert. I thought, “That’s weird.” Then somebody fairly recently said to me, “Well orange is the exact opposite on the color wheel from Facebook’s blue. And so it really stands out and smacks people between the eye.”
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Once you notice it in film posters, you can’t unsee it.
David Penny: Yes. Yes, I know, I know. I think it was Mark Dawson that said about the yellow and the orange and I thought, “Yes. That’s a great idea.” So most of my ads now have orange in. I just struck lucky in that first advert, which was really simple. It had a man on horseback in front of a castle, which happened to be Edinburgh Castle, which some nerd pointed out. I thought, “Well it doesn’t matter, nobody knows.” From that day on, I’ve never earned less than three times what I’ve spent on advertising.
Tom Ashford: That’s healthy.
David Penny: It is good. It is, yeah. Yeah. I do other, I do Amazon ads now. I’ve had a BookBub which was like hanging onto the back of some flying beast and hoping you’re never going to fall off, because it just totally … I think I got to number one in the US and number one in the UK.
Tom Ashford: Wow.
David Penny: Only for like 36 hours.
Tom Ashford: Still counts.
David Penny: But it was still pretty good. Yeah. Number one bestseller plastered all over everything. I never do that. I should do. That was giving away free books. The weird thing is, is that I’m a big believer in free, which a lot of people say they would never do, but I gave away 48,000 free books in one day, but still sold more of that title in that month than I have ever sold before or since. It’s weird, you know? Because people download it and look at it and say, “Hey, this is good.” And they tell their mates and it’s not free anymore, and so they have to buy it. I think it works like that. Then it’s getting, it’s rising above the parapet and letting people see you, and know who you are, and what you write, and whether they like it or not.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Okay. Well, I mean those are obviously some successful things. Question number four is what mistakes do you think you’ve made?
David Penny: Yeah. Well it’s not a long list, but it’s a fairly long list. The first one I think is thinking that writing a good book is enough to be successful. I had mentioned this before in the previous answer, that you can write the best book you have, and unless some people can find you, it’s not. Then the other thing I’ve discovered over doing this for a long time now is not trusting those whose job it is to create the bits for you. So cover designers, trust them. Formatters. All of the people that you use, in particularly your structural editor. I have a great structural editor, who now tells me that I don’t really need her anymore. I say, “Yes I do, because if I don’t send it to you then I will get away …” Because I’m writing along and I say, “Oh my God, what would Sarah say about that?” Because I know I’m going to send it to her, I change it and fix it. Whereas if I didn’t know I was sending it to Sarah then I probably wouldn’t fix it and it would not be as good a book.
David Penny: So build a trusted team around you and trust them to do their job. One of the lessons I learned is, I wanted to try and tell the story of my book on the cover, the first book. It was a car crash. I come across authors like this all the time. They want a particular person on it and they want a particular scene on it, and that’s no good. What you’re selling is a feeling, and you’re selling the idea of this book is in a particular genre. So as soon as I went to a different designer and said, “Can you redo all of my covers, make them all the same, and really hit the reader between the eyes and say, ‘This is an historical mystery.'” Then the sales went up again. So that’s a good idea.
David Penny: That’s the mistakes, I’ve made quite a lot of them, but… Oh, and not learning about story. Thinking that I was good enough to just make … I nearly said something else that started with S. Make stuff up, and it would be good. That’s not the case. You need to know your craft and you need to practice your craft.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Cool. Well question number five, the last one is, what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
David Penny: Yeah. The first one is be professional. This applies to everything. My son’s a musician and when he was starting out, I said, “Turn up on time, don’t get drunk, do your job.” He’s built a whole career on that, because in the music industry, most people don’t do that. It’s the same for writing. If you promised somebody you’re going to do something, do it. Preferably do it before you’ve told them they’re going to get it, and put enough into it to make it as good as you can. So be professional is the first thing I’d tell them. That is a topic that we could talk for two hours about. I’m very keen on that people are professional. I come across people all the time and you know they’re not going to make it because they lack that mindset of professionalism.
David Penny: The other thing is to write. You know the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour rule that nobody can do anything unless they spent 10,000 hours learning how to do it or practicing it. So Hendrix apparently used to take his strat into the toilet with him and just played, and played, and played. He would fall asleep with it on his lap. So you need to write, and you need to write lots, and you need to … it doesn’t matter whether it’s good, or bad, or indifferent. You need to write. Then eventually you will get better at it. So don’t expect to … I come across people and they say … I met a guy who said, “Oh, I want to be a writer, but I need to earn an 100k a year to make it worthwhile. How can I do that?” That was his first mistake. Then somebody said, “Well, what have you written so far?” “Nothing yet. But I think it looks easy.”
Tom Ashford: Oh god.
David Penny: Great. Yeah. I don’t think he made it.
Tom Ashford: No.
David Penny: Never seen him. Another thing is ask for and accept honest criticism. That’s difficult to do, but it’s one of the biggest things that will improve you as a writer. Then I’ve got, define what your goals are and the reasons for writing. I’m in a couple of Facebook groups and people say their main reason for writing is they thought it was a good idea to earn money. Then they get really disillusioned. So do you want to earn money? Do you want to be famous? Is it for your satisfaction? Those will define what you’re going to write, and how you’re going to write, and how much work you’re going to put into it. Everybody can do it if they want to do it, but not everybody is going to … like I said, I’m really, really fortunate. 99% of people will never make a living out of writing, whether they’re trad or indie. So you have to accept that that might be the case. But writing for your own satisfaction quite often will be enough.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Well, that’s all great advice and that’s your five questions. So thank you very much for coming on. It’s been fantastic.
David Penny: Thank you for asking me, Tom. It’s been a pleasure.
Tom Ashford: That’s it for this weeks 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 at selfpublishingformula.com/spotlight-guest. I’m Tom Ashford and I’ll see you again next week.
Grab Your SPF Freebies!
Sign up to receive your SPF starter package, which includes a free 3 part video series on getting started with FB ads, and inspirational and educational weekly emails.