Spotlight 21: Rachel McCollin
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 in the 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 yourself publishing resource kit at SelfPublishingFormula.com/starterkit.
This week’s guest is Rachel McCollin. She’s written 12 books in the thriller and nonfiction genres, and she lives in the UK. Welcome, Rachel.
Rachel McCollin: Hello. Pleased to be here.
Tom Ashford: Before we launch into the five questions, would you like to start by talking about your thriller and nonfiction genres, and then I believe you’re about to start into the mystery genre?
Rachel McCollin: I’m one of those daft people who doesn’t do what everybody tells you you ought to do, and I don’t focus on one genre. But I think actually quite a lot of people who tell you that you should focus on one genre actually like to write multiple genres themselves, because I think it’s quite nice to have a bit of a change.
The first books I published, and I’m still writing them, are near future dystopian thrillers, and they’re pretty dark. I mean, for example, the first one, A House Divided, which took me 15 years to write, being my first book, I write a bit faster now, that one I kept putting storylines in that I thought were ridiculously far-fetched. It’s a political thriller. I thought, “Oh, nobody’s going to believe this. People are going to think she’s coming up with all sorts of rubbish, and then these things would happen.”
I’ve developed a bit of a reputation amongst my writer friends as a Nostradamus, they keep asking me to write some more fun stuff.
I’m now working on my first cozy mystery, which is called Murder in the Multiverse. It’s about a top secret operations of top secret police unit as part of San Francisco Police Department that investigates crimes by going to alternate universes. And it’s got lots of physics jokes and geeky references.
It’s got a quantum cat that you’d never put in a box and things like that. So that’s where I get a bit of light relief from the dark thrillers. And I also write nonfiction. So I’ve been writing nonfiction for many years.
I’ve got four books on web development that were traditionally published, and I’ve been writing about web development for about six or seven years now for various websites, hosting companies, or actually WordPress.com blog, for example. And that has developed into writing my own nonfiction books and publishing them myself.
The first one of those came out of a conversation at a writing conference where I kept giving people advice on their website, and somebody said, “Why don’t you put all these in a book?” So the first nonfiction book I published myself was WordPress for Writers. And I’ve also published another very slim book called The Novel Planning Workbook, which came out of my own writing process.
Tom Ashford: Nice. I particularly liked the quantum cat multiverse story.
Rachel McCollin: He’s very popular. He’s called Schrodinger. Not all that imaginative name for a quantum cat, but if you’ve got a quantum cat and he dies every time you put them in a box, you’ve got to call him Schrodinger, really.
Tom Ashford: Well, of course. Yeah. Okay, cool.
Question number one is, why do you write?
Rachel McCollin: I’ve always written. I imagine a lot of your guests say the same thing, but I wrote my first novel… I mean, not novel, probably not the 50,000 words that you’d have to do for NaNoWriMo, but it was a multi-part work. I wrote that in primary school when I was probably about 10.
That was about a group of French children in the Second World War, who discovered that their governess was Jewish and they were hiding her in their cellar. And then I wrote another one about a girl who was being bullied at school. I have no idea what happened to these stories.
Then I went to secondary school and had the creativity knocked out of me and had to focus on studying and doing exams and that sort of thing.
And then every job I’ve had since then, most of them weren’t actually writing jobs, but I’ve always been the writer on the team. I’ve always been the one who people have come to to write things, to put briefings together or press releases or speeches, or to edit their work, or to advise them on the possessive apostrophe, that sort of thing.
I guess in terms of why I write, I love writing. I find it’s really good for my mental health. If I don’t write for a few days, I find myself getting a bit grumpy at my family, so I tell them that there’s a compromise to be had. They have to lose me for a few hours into my writing, and then when I come back on, a much more pleasant mom and wife to be around.
I write because I love it and because I also love connecting with readers. Since I’ve been self-publishing, you get a direct connection with readers and the feedback that you get from people. It’s fantastic. It’s such a good feeling when people say they enjoy your books.
Tom Ashford: Was there a particular story that you wanted to tell that inspired the first book?
Rachel McCollin: That was A House Divided, which was a political thriller and the setting is based on my own experience. I used to work in Westminster, I used to work in British politics. And so the experience of being in that building and the impact that it has on people and the fact that you’re in this very closed environment and people behave differently in there to how they treat you outside.
It’s almost like being at school, you get little cliques and you get fashions in that people are wearing the same sort of thing and that sort of thing. It’s a really interesting environment to be in. It does strike a little bit of all because of the building being so majestic, and that does come across in the book, but I also had quite a lot of stories people had told me and things I knew.
For example, I used to watch The Thick of It and see scenes and think actually I know who that happened to, and they’ve got that from real life. So that experience came in into the book, and then by the time I actually published it, because it took me 15 years to write, by the time I published, I’d long since not been working in politics. We’d had two changes of government, things had changed quite significantly.
I was lucky enough to have a friend who’s an MP, and she read it for me and she gave me loads of fascinating tips on some of the rooms that you don’t even know exist that only MPs can go into and the spaces, or use those spaces in the book to create that sense of these private little nooks that people use to go and negotiate with each other and that sort of thing.
There are awesome political messages in the book, but it’s more about the place and the personalities and the idea of having to compromise between your personal principles and your political desires or ambitions.
Tom Ashford: I think you mentioned before that you’re traditionally published as well, so I guess you’re a hybrid author?
Rachel McCollin: Yeah. I wouldn’t call myself a hybrid author now because, to be honest, the books I had traditionally published, my publishers have no interest in me anymore.
I was initially approached by a small nonfiction publisher because I’d been developing a bit of a reputation as a blogger about WordPress and particularly about developing mobile and responsive websites with WordPress, which at that time was really new and trendy and it was a hot topic in web development circles.
So I was approached and asked to write a book about that, and then wrote a couple more books for that same publisher. Then I was approached by a large academic publisher who promised me the earth and said we’d sell thousands of copies and I’d make loads in royalties, and then unfortunately my editor left halfway through the process.
So I was passed to an editor who steered the book to publication, but wasn’t particularly interested in doing anything more with it, and there was no marketing support whatsoever. They released another book, another imprint of the same publisher released a competing book the week before mine. It didn’t seem to be the best timing.
The whole thing put me off a bit, really. And I then went through the process of querying agents with my first novel because at that point that was all I really knew to do, but then got to know some people who were successfully self-publishing, picked their brains, got lots of advice, got quite inspired by it and just over two years ago decided to take the leap into publishing myself.
Tom Ashford: Would you ever think you’d go back to a traditional contract?
Rachel McCollin: I doubt it. I think I would consider doing it for paperback because obviously it’s quite hard to get paperback books into shops as an indie. I managed to get a few into Blackwell’s because I did my book launch for A House Divided at Labour Party Conference last year, and it was the Blackwell’s pop-up bookshop. So they had a few copies, but they were only stocking it in the local shop. It wasn’t as if I’ve managed to get it into Waterstones or anything like that.
But generally, no, because I really enjoy being indie. I really enjoy the connection with the readers. I’m quite a fast writer, so I like the fact that I can publish and release without having to wait months and months and years before my book gets out.
I’ve been self-employed for most of my life, and I think the idea of working with a publisher almost feels like I’m but having a job and you’re ready to raise almost your boss in a way and you have to do what they tell you to. I’m not sure. It’s not exactly like that, but it’s something that doesn’t appeal to me.
Tom Ashford: Question number two is, how do you write? Are you more of a plotter or a pantser?
Rachel McCollin: My first book, as I’ve mentioned, it took me 15 years to write and I pantsed that one. And as a result, I think probably the final book that was published had about 5% of the original book in it.
I’d written two books and I had to split them in half, so 50% of it gone. It was my first novel. It wasn’t very good in the early stages, so it took a lot of learning and editing and reiteration to get it good. So that obviously took a long time.
My second book, Thicker Than Water, which was also a near future, post-apocalyptic thriller with quite a lot of psychological thriller elements, which is about post-flooding, that I developed a hybrid process where I would plot a few chapters in advance and then write back and then plot a few more chapters in advance. But again, that took me a year.
So then for the next book I thought, “Right, I need to work out a better process for this.” And now I’m a confirmed plotter. I went through the process of working out the best way of doing that for me.
I read loads of books, I read The Snowflake Method, everything, you name it. KM Weiland, I’ve read all her books, and I’ve amalgamated that into my own process, which I would put into a notebook every time I started a book.
But now what I’ve done is I’ve actually created a book, which I published called The Novel Planning Workbook, and I published it really for myself. Every time I start a new project, I can buy it off Amazon for myself and plot my next book. But it does sell the occasional copy. I don’t do any marketing for it because, to be honest, that’s not why I did it. But other people sometimes buy it as well, which is quite a nice bonus.
Tom Ashford: Is there a particular time and place that you like to write?
Rachel McCollin: I find my best place for writing is my local library. My best time is the afternoon, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time using data to work that out. Actually recording my word count in different places in different times of day, my words per hour and in a spreadsheet, and then analyzing that.
I surprise myself because I thought I’d be better in the morning, but I’m actually not. I’m better in the afternoon. I write at my fastest when I occasionally go right in the pub in the evenings, but it’s probably not my best work.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, probably.
Rachel McCollin: So I don’t do that too often.
Tom Ashford: No.
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?
Rachel McCollin: I’m a full time writer but not a full time author. My day job is I’m a freelance technical writer and teacher. I write articles, tutorials, blog posts, and I also create courses on web design and development. That means I’m lucky enough because I’m self-employed. I can work my schedule around writing as well.
I’ve now changed my schedule for each day so that I’m doing that in the morning and I’m writing my own work in the afternoons.
In terms of what I’m doing to become a full time author, it’s definitely my ambition to become a full time author, I’ve been doing all the courses, doing lots of courses, the SPF courses, for example, and others on marketing.
I’ve been putting quite a lot of work into Facebook ads and BookBub ads. I actually got a BookBub featured deal today, which is nice. So the fact I’m talking to you means I’m not frantically checking my sales figures every minute, which is probably a good thing.
What I’m trying to do, because I’ve been quite piecemealing the past of like each week of, “Oh, we’ll do a bit of this week and a bit of that.” I’m trying to actually start from first principles. I read David Gaughran’s Strangers to Superfans, and I’m trying to sort of start the whole underlying process and materials that are available to support my books.
I’ve gone through my newsletter onboarding and I’m now working on my metadata and my blurbs. And then having done that, I’m going to do lots and lots of testing of ads. And then once hopefully I get ads that are more profitable, the ones I’ve been running up… I’ve managed to run profitable ones, but struggled with scaling them up.
I want to do more testing so I can scale them up more. And I guess the other thing that I’m doing that is aimed towards experimenting with something that might help me become a full time author is, is writing my first mystery. So the the multiverse investigations unit book, that is a different genre. That will be in KU, my other books are wide. And I guess it’s a way of testing different markets and different audiences and different genres and how well I could do in each of those, really.
Tom Ashford: Sounds like a plan.
That leads into question number four, which is, what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
Rachel McCollin: The first book I’d published, which wasn’t actually the first book I wrote, it was the second book I wrote, I published Thicker Than Water, which is set six years after devastating floods have taken place across the UK and it’s about a community whose past catches up with them.
I decided to brand it as a post-apocalyptic book, and then it didn’t really do very well. One day I got a comment from somebody saying, “Has it got zombies in it?” And I thought, no, this really isn’t that kind of book. It was actually closer to a psychological thriller, because it was about his family and their past and awful things happening to them as a result, and the secrets that they were keeping from each other.
So I moved it on Amazon into a different genre into psychological thrillers and then realized the cover was all wrong, because I’d had a beautiful cover designed but it was a post-apocalyptic cover. So I had to get a new cover for it and rebrand it. And as a result, it has been selling a lot better.
It did instantly start sounding better as a psychological thriller than it did as a post-apocalyptic novel. Although it has got sort of mild post-apocalyptic elements, I think it’s post-apocalyptic enough for the post-apocalyptic crowd. So it fits psychological thriller better.
Tom Ashford: Nice. Okay.
Question number five is, what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out in indie publishing?
Rachel McCollin: I guess my piece of advice would be, and I know this is probably really disappointing piece of advice, is write the next book. Because when you’ve written one book, it’s hell of a processes, there’s a lot of learning involved, and it’s very tempting to think, “Right, I’ve got my first book. I’m going to go out and market it and hopefully become the next big selling author.”
I actually think that writing your next book helps you become a much better writer and that’s part of the reason I actually published my second book before I published my first book, because I then went back and edited my first book using the skills that I’d learned from writing my second book. And also if you’re going to be advertising or marketing your books, it’s much, much easier to get a positive return on investment if you’ve got more than one book.
I run a blog called RachelMcWrites.com, which is writing tips, aimed at people like me who are fairly new to all this. The idea of being somebody who’s been doing it a little bit longer than you, giving you tips based on what they’ve done, the mistakes they’ve made, that’s me, and mistakes I’ve made, and things I’m learning.
One of the things I’ve got in that blog is an infographic, which is how to get started marketing your book, and the first thing is write the next book. Which, you know, people sometimes, “No, I want to know whether I should be running Facebook ads or Amazon ads.” And I know it’s really, really tempting to go spend your money straight away, but I would say write the next book first.
Tom Ashford: I don’t think that’s a disappointing bit of advice. I think it’s a good one. Personally, my favorite part of the whole thing is writing the book. You’d hope that would be the case for most people.
Rachel McCollin: Absolutely. I quite enjoy marketing as well. I’m lucky there, because occasionally I’ll have a day where I set it aside for marketing and I’m like, “Whoa! I got a whole day of marketing.” And I do actually look forward to it.
I’m fortunate in that I have that sort of bend and that frame of mind, and I’d been running my own business for years, so I’m quite comfortable with doing that, which I think is why being an indie suits me.
Whereas some of my writer friends locally are horrified by that idea and would much rather get a traditional deal, which is fair enough, which is fine.
Tom Ashford: Those are your five questions. Thank you very much for coming on.
Rachel McCollin: Thank you for having me.
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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