Spotlight 15: Paul Teague
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 Paul Teague. He’s written 21 books in the thriller, sci-fi, and nonfiction genres, and he lives in the UK. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Teague: Thank you very much, Tom. Nice to speak to you.
Tom Ashford: It’s great to have you on.
Now before we went live, you mentioned that in addition to writing you also have a podcast about publishing or self-publishing, so do you want to talk about that?
Paul Teague: It’s the Self-Publishing Journeys Podcast and it started interviewing authors. I was listening to Mark obviously and Joanna Penn and all the usual podcasts that we all listened to, I think.
And because I was really struggling at that time, this is three and a half years ago, and I was earning about 10 pounds a month, I was in that zone, I wanted to speak to authors who were in the trenches, just trying to get those first dollars and pounds coming in, so I set up the podcast for that purpose. But a couple of months in, I started to record my progress as an indie author.
So it’s been going for about 169 episodes now. And it takes you through from those very early days, the first books, to my first thousand dollar month, to first BookBub. It’s got all those stages and steps of my career in.
And it’s the sort of thing that I don’t stop now because it’s got such an intimate, it’s always been the most popular part of the show because you have all the agonies, the pains, the frustrations, and hopefully a few successes thrown in there as well.
Tom Ashford: Wow, that’s really cool. So in terms of your books, you’ve got three different main genres there.
Is there a reason why you write in thriller sci-fi, and nonfiction?
Paul Teague: I started writing sci-fi first only because I’d had an idea. I just had this idea one morning in bed, leapt up and started writing it. And it was inspired by a real-life visit.
It’s called The Secret Bunker. And it was inspired by a visit that we did with the kids about four years previously. It’s about a secret nuclear bunker in Scotland. It’s the place that the Scottish government would have gone in if there was a nuclear war. And we’d been to see this on a day trip, this amazing place, and that that obviously inspired me. Then I just woke up one morning with a great image and started writing the story, so that was the first trilogy.
Then I wrote another sci-fi trilogy, and then I started to learn about self-publishing and realize that because I come from a geeky background, I teach corporate clients on web-y stuff, making websites and geeky things, and I realized that actually, it would be easier to write some nonfiction books because there are a lot easier to sell.
When you write fiction, you are an unknown author at the very bottom of a deep genre. No one’s looking for you. But when you write nonfiction, people are looking for keywords. And I thought, well, I know that, and that’s comfortable territory.
So I knocked out seven nonfiction books, which were of the themes that I was teaching. I was able to sell a lot the paperbacks when I was teaching, and so I had some success with those. My Facebook was one of my best sellers at one time.
And then I can’t remember what made me do thrillers. I’d always read thrillers, interested. I don’t read sci-fi. I watch sci-fi on the telly and at the cinema, but I don’t read it. But I read thrillers, so I wrote her thriller trilogy. The trilogy took off faster, I guess I had a trilogy. The first trilogies took off really well. And so I guess that’s where I put my efforts into thrillers after that. So it’s accidents of discovery, really, I guess.
Tom Ashford: Okay. Well, that kind of leads us into the first of the five main questions. So obviously you started with sci-fi novels.
Is there a particular reason why you wanted to write in the first place?
Paul Teague: I wrote my first book when I was nine years old. And people who are old enough will know what I mean when I say I wrote it on a Basildon Bond writing pad in 1974. This classic was called Mr. Plum and Mr. Apple. And I sent it to Penguin Books. And it was written in pencil and with felt pen illustrations.
I sent it to Penguin Books and I’ve still got my first type-written rejection letter from Penguin and it’s a really lovely letter. And it actually, the advice in it stands good today. It says, Penguin were kind of a republishing house and said they couldn’t take the book anyway, but they said, “Get the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and look for appropriate people to send it to.” It was a lovely letter. And then I tried sending it to Pan Books as well.
So I’ve always wanted to write. I did my career, I hadn’t actually realized it until I returned to writing about four years ago, I have actually always written and created in my working life. So I was a teacher for a couple of years and I used to do plays, write the plays and the assemblies and things like that. I was always writing creative materials.
And then like James, I worked at the BBC for 18 years. So I was a journalist, a reporter, and a presenter. And of course, that involved writing very tight scripts for radio. It had a whole writing technique of its own working on the radio. So I was actually always writing and creating at that time.
But then I left the Beeb in 2010, I went freelance. I was teaching kind of geeky things. And then just, I put in for a contract one day and didn’t get it. I over-bid. I bid too high for it. It got knocked back. And I was like an actor at rest. I was resting in between jobs and I hadn’t got any work lined up.
That’s when I had the idea for the story, started writing, and then got carried away with it. And here I am four years later with 20 something books behind me.
Tom Ashford: Nice.
Have you self-published or any of those books traditionally published?
Paul Teague: I’m completely self-published. So when I started, I was going for the traditional approach, so I went to a, it’s a rather excellent writing event actually at the University of York, and it used to be called The Writer’s Workshop event. I can’t remember what it’s called now. It’s run by somebody called Jericho Writers.
But I went there and they did bookings with agents so you could get agent feedback and I took The Secret Bunker there. I don’t think it was even published in any form then. Got some really bruising feedback as you would expect and was amazed that virtually 99% of the people there were sort of traditional authors at that event. But found it incredibly useful in terms of craft, and networking, and learning.
I decided to self-publish at that stage. It was just I’m quite impatient. I don’t like waiting for people too long, and so I have the technical skills to do it and it didn’t trouble me in the slightest.
So when I started self-publishing, I would upload a Word document and then I would download it as HTML and I would change the HTML. I would format it in HTML at that stage. So the geeky side of it, actually I loved it. I loved doing all the practical things, and the websites and the social media where it’s a problem.
It was always self-publishing for me, really. I remember about that time when I wrote The Secret Bunker, I can remember self-publishing that and making sales. One of the great things about that book is that the real-life secret bunker, which is a tourist destination, they buy the books and stock them at the shop.
They buy them 30 at a time and stock them in the shops and sell them to the tourists, which is fabulous. So with that book, although I was always selling it from day one because the real-life secret bunker embraced it, and loved it, and supported it.
My sister had written a book at the same time and submitted it through traditional channels and I was on my sixth book by the time she had her five rejection letters back and had got nowhere with it. And so that made me feel really passionate about self-publishing.
I’m not waiting for the people. My view always is self-publish. And if I write something that’s great enough that if it fires, I feel that people will be knocking at my door anyway if it’s a success.
Tom Ashford: And even if they do pick it up, you then might have to wait up to months, two years before they actually put it out.
Paul Teague: I can’t wait that long, Tom. I’m just too impatient. So self-publishing is for me, I think.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. I don’t know if I’d even care that much about the book by the time it came out.
Paul Teague: I can’t even remember the books I’ve just written. So the minute I write it, when we were chatting off air before, and I can’t remember how many books I’ve written. Once they’re done and published, I’ve forgetten.
Tom Ashford: Okay, so question two is, how do you write?
Are you more of a plotter or do you just see where the story takes you?
Paul Teague: I’m very methodical about everything, Tom. So I can tell you that I write 5,000 words in a sitting, in a day. And I can tell you that I write 1,700 words in an hour and I write three hours in a day. So that’s my writing day.
I schedule my days. And I have a whiteboard to my left, I have a weekly planning sheet to my left as well, and I make sure the writing gets done, internet goes off, phone gets switched off, door gets closed, and that’s how I write. So I’m very methodical about it.
But in terms of the sort of a planner or pantser, when I did The Secret Bunker, I originally wrote 5,000 words and just the beginning of the story hadn’t really got a clue where it was going. Hence that book, I’ve learned very quickly that you don’t do that.
The tenses were all over the place. The story was okay, but I just launched myself out into space and hadn’t got any idea how I was going to land again. And so I just learned so fast from writing that first one and refine my processes.
Interestingly, this year for this first time, I’m doing two collaborations, so at the time we’re recording this, I’m just about to release, it’s on pre-release now, a thriller collaboration with Adam Nichols, who’s a UK author. And also with one of your early interviewees, with John Evans, he writes with his brother James Evans, and I’ve just written three military sci-fi books, with John and James Evans. They’re both contacts I made through the podcast, interestingly, and I resisted collaboration for a long time.
But because I’ve collaborated this year for the first time, I felt an obligation to communicate plot to my collaborators before I started writing. So the four books I’ve written this year in collaborations have been planned out in meticulous detail, really in fairness to the people I’m working with so they can tell me if I’m going right with it, if they need anything to change, basically so they could rubber-stamp the plot, if I start writing my 5,000 words in daily sittings.
I love that process now. So I was more of a pantser. You hear of people planning in 10,000-word detail. I don’t do that kind of planning, but I do have a specific outline for each chapter so I know exactly what the story is. And I got to tell you, I really like that. So I do need an element of discovery writing and I couldn’t have it all planned. I have found it really useful and focusing to have just chapter outlines every day that I write so I know where I’m going ahead of time.
Tom Ashford: What software do you use to write, so Scrivener or Word or anything else?
Paul Teague: I started in Word, like most people do. I moved to Google Drive, but I use Scrivener to write. So the tools I use are Scrivener to write, which I just love. I use The Novel Factory to plan and that’s not a well-known software. The Novel Factory, I use the downloadable version.
Interesting, I like my geeky apps and things. But I haven’t really found a writing software that works in the cloud or online that I like. So I like Scrivener because it’s offline and there’s no delay or anything there. But I use the Novel Factory to plan in.
I like to plan my locations and I like to cast my characters. I find actors and photographs of my characters and just give them names and that helps me to visualize the book and I do the same with locations, as well. And then I can picture it. I use the Novel Factory for that.
When I’m writing I write with two screens. I have a two-in screen PC set up. I have Scrivener on my main screen and I have The Novel Factory open on my right-hand screen, which has all my characters and my locations so I can see them all the time and visualize my characters.
And then I publish in Vellum, which I use on a PC rather than a Mac. So I use something called MacinCloud, which allows me to use Vellum on a PC and everything is then formatted in Vellum, which it’s the best software on earth. It just makes formatting so easy. I love it.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Okay. Well, obviously you’re quite prolific.
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?
Paul Teague: No, I’m not a full-time author yet. I’m a bootstrapped author. So last year I, finally earned more than the average author. So I think I was looking it up before we chatted. It’s about 10,500 pounds, I think, that the average author earns. I found it in a Guardian article. I think it’s about that.
So I earned, I think it was about 16,000, 16,500 last year from my writings, about $20,500, I think it was. So what I do is I bootstrap my business. I work three days a week in a day job, that takes care of my bills. And then for the other four days I write. So I generally write three days a week, 15,000 words a week. That’s generally what I’m writing.
My business is completely self-contained. I’m just about to relaunch books and do a rapid rerelease. So when you think I’m paying 800 pounds for an editor time, and then I’ve just got Stuart Bache doing me, or was it seven, six, or seven covers, which you in another 2,500 pounds to 3,000 pounds. So all of that is bootstrapped.
My business is self-sustaining and I’m taking a tiny little bit of money out of it, but I’m actually working on a bootstrapping principle at the moment. So my first thing was to make the business entirely self-sufficient so it wasn’t subsidized by any kind of personal income and now it is self-sustaining.
I’ve just got my fourth BookBub on a trilogy and my sixth BookBub ever. So I’m kind of in that flow now, where I’ve had a 5,000-pound month, I think. Some guessing there, really slowly, but it’s not consistent. It’s no way a regular income. But I’m having peaks. I’ve had some peaks in there but I need to sustain it and make it more regular.
Tom Ashford: It sounds like a pretty good achievement in its own right.
Paul Teague: I’m happy but I’m not content yet. I had targets, first was a hundred pounds a month. Second, was a $1,000 a month and then a 1,000-pound month. And my wife works part-time.
And on the podcast I always used to say to people, “If I can earn as much as my wife does, then that’s a first touchstone, if you want, where I’ve actually earned as much as one of the incomes in our family.” And I’ve actually, I do that every month now, interestingly. I won’t say what that figure is because it’s as a personal income level. But I have sort of revealed this on the podcast, but it’s a reasonable amount, which I earn every month now.
This is why I like doing the podcast diary because when I pick an old episode at random, and if I’m ever thinking I not making good enough progress and you listen to somebody like Mark who’s doing what? How much is Mark doing a month? A thousand or something, is it?
Tom Ashford: Something like that.
Paul Teague: It’s ridiculous and it’s so far away from my experience when you hear people doing that. I always say that’s the point in the distance I’m aiming for. That’s what I want. That’s what I’m aiming for. That’s what I aspire to.
But my reality at the moment isn’t that, it’s less than that. And so it’s quite good to look back at those targets and say, “Look, off my own work I’m now earning more than an average traditional author is.” So to mark that achievement, but actually, I want to go a lot further than that. I’m not done yet. I’m not at all happy with that yet.
Tom Ashford: Question number four is what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
Paul Teague: I try not to mark it as mistakes. I try to mark it as learning experiences. And I’ve never made mistakes are things that paramedics make and people who fly airplanes. We don’t make mistakes that lose lives, they’re errors.
I’m a big fan of a book by Brian Tracy called Flight Plan in which the basic concept is, is that when a plane flies from A to B, so and author who’s not written anything to an author who’s having say Mark’s success, and you’ve got this flight path, but actually an airplane makes constant course corrections.
It never flies straight there. There’s winds and it has to drop height, it makes constant course corrections. And that’s how I like to see my author career, that if something isn’t quite working, I take a course correction. I learn from best practice.
So I don’t feel that there are mistakes, there might be missteps and things that don’t work, but everything is learning.
But I will give you an answer to that though, and probably the thing that I should have done from day one is write to market, is not write the book necessarily that you want to write, but to write the book that the market wants. So I think this is why collaboration has been really interesting this year with Adam, and with John, and James is that it’s really forced me to write to their market because they’re both having success in that market. And I found that extremely illuminating going through that process.
In terms of what I’ve done right, I’m a big fan of trilogies. And I have to say that I haven’t written a series yet and series is the next thing. I want to try writing a series next. But I’ve had tremendous success with trilogies.
I love trilogies and I’m so pleased I wrote a trilogy first because they work when on BookBub. I can give one away for free and I make all my money on books two and three. And so long as I create a trilogy that has that kind of pacing in it where people have to read books two or three, that’s how I write them, I’ve basically made my money off three trilogies that I’ve written.
In fact, I’ve lived off my thriller trilogy for the last 18 months because it keeps getting BookBubs and it keeps earning really well on BookBubs because the read-through is so good.
So what I’ve got to try is a series, whether I can get the read-through on a series. A bit nervous about that because I’ve had so much success with the trilogies. So yeah, what I’ve done right, I wrote in trilogies and I’ve got three trilogies. They really helped me to market and make some money from this.
Tom Ashford: Nice. Okay.
The fifth and final question is, what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
Paul Teague: I hesitate to give advice because I don’t feel like I’m in a place of success, but I think I’ll give a principal, which I think is a good principle, which is to bootstrap your business. And by bootstrapping your business, I mean, try and have the attitude that your business must pay for itself rather than you taking money out, say your salary to pay for it, try and make it self-sustaining as soon as you can.
I think that’s a really good mindset to have because I always say on my podcast, “If you’re spending money on something and not making a profit, that’s a hobby. If you’re writing books and making a profit, then that’s a business.” And you’ve got to think of it like a business.
If you bootstrap it, you don’t keep subsidize it from your main salary or whatever you’re doing, your other income or your savings. If you try and bootstrap it as soon as you can, as early as you can, I just think that’s a really good kind of startup business concept, in that it keeps you focused all the time on profit. You can’t just keep subsidizing everything with other income. Everything is about making a profit, which you can then plow back into the business.
What I hope to do next year or this tax year is I want to start taking income out of the business next and start forcing my mindset to say, “Well you don’t just keep bootstrapping now because if my business pays for everything I need to now, I want to start taking some cash out of it soon so that all this writing I’m doing gives me find some financial reward.” Even if that’s just taking a couple of thousand out for holiday or something like that, it needs to give me financial reward otherwise it’s all effort for no outcome.
Tom Ashford: Yeah. Apart from a lovely series of books.
Paul Teague: Except for seeing all those lovely books that I can’t remember on my bookshelf, yeah, the titles of which I’ve forgotten.
Tom Ashford: Well that’s good advice and that’s your five questions up, so thank you very much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure to speak to you.
Paul Teague: Thank you very much. It’s been great talking to you, Tom.
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.
And 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.
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